Schumer plots debt ceiling course against McCarthy: ‘We’ll win’
Chuck Schumer, as he’s known to do, is talking a lot these days. And it’s all aimed at Kevin McCarthy.
The Senate majority leader is directing heat at the new House GOP majority on the daily, casting McCarthy’s conference in the role of villain as the 2024 election cycle kicks off. Schumer first attacked House Republicans for giving airtime to conservative hopes of replacing income taxes with a national sales tax, and now he’s directing his ire toward McCarthy’s insistence on spending cuts in exchange for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling.
Schumer helped leverage debt ceiling and spending deadlines in 2017, reaching a deal with former President Donald Trump that infuriated Republicans. Six years later, he’s demanding something placid from the GOP: “No hostage-taking, no brinkmanship. Pass the debt ceiling.”
“Unfortunately, [McCarthy] let a group of very extreme people, he gave them the tools" to wield power, Schumer said in an interview. “The plan is to get our Republican colleagues in the House to understand they're flirting with disaster and hurting the American people. And to let the American people understand that as well. And I think we'll win.”
It's something of a new, dual-track role for the New Yorker. For the last two years, Schumer and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed bipartisan Senate groups to work and usually avoided a top-down approach that could have disrupted aisle-crossing negotiations. Before that, Schumer spent four years as one of Trump’s chief antagonists, occasionally negotiating with the former president but mostly focusing on stopping him.
Today, Schumer is somewhere in between, haranguing the House GOP while keeping the door open for the bipartisan work his deal-seeking senators crave. And he’s preparing for a long face-off with McCarthy as Washington charts this year’s mid-year debt ceiling deadline like an approaching meteor.
Asked to respond to Schumer, McCarthy criticized the Democrat’s December drive to pass a year-end spending bill shaped in part by two retiring senators.
“When was the last time he did a budget? So, he wants somebody to lift the debt ceiling, but he won’t tell the American people where he’ll spend money?” McCarthy said of Schumer in a brief interview. (During the last Congress, Schumer's Senate did pass budget bills to set up filibuster-proof party-line legislation on covid relief, taxes, climate and health care.)
At the moment, there’s little cooking in the Senate on the debt ceiling or otherwise, and Schumer is filling the vacuum with a fusillade of attacks on the GOP. Schumer greeted McCarthy’s chaotic speaker election with a snarky congratulations that the Californian's “dream job could turn into a nightmare for the American people.”
Notably, however, he has since focused mostly on McCarthy’s more conservative members instead of the new speaker personally. He also hasn’t explicitly ruled out negotiations.
And those conservative members are front and center in the new GOP majority after McCarthy’s stumble-filled but ultimately successful bid for the speakership. One concession he made along the way: House Republicans would refuse to support raising the debt ceiling without a “budget agreement or commensurate fiscal reforms,” according to a slide shown during a closed-door conference meeting earlier this month.
Schumer and McCarthy have not yet held a one-on-one meeting. Aides are hopeful there will be one soon, but it is not yet scheduled.
“There's a fine line between saying, ‘We disagree, and we have our issues,’ as opposed to saying, ‘They're no good, they're scum of the earth,'” said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who added that he hopes both leaders treat their rhetoric carefully.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is staying away from the fray, saying he’ll leave things to McCarthy and Biden. And Schumer has declined to address the possibility of bringing a so-called clean debt ceiling increase to the floor, a move that could fail and shake financial markets.
Just the same, Democrats don’t want to open the door for a negotiation that unfolds in the unpredictable style that 2011's debt ceiling talks did. They're wary of what happened when Biden himself cut a deal with McConnell that resulted in both domestic and military spending cuts.
“There will be opportunities to work together, but not in the context of them threatening the global economy,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said of House Republicans.
Schumer, contra McConnell, is not encouraging Biden to get in a room with McCarthy. Instead, he said that if McCarthy wants to cut spending as a condition for raising the debt ceiling, Democrats need to see their plan to do so first — echoing the combative tone that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries has long taken toward McCarthy.
“When you hear from Biden, they agree with us. [Republicans] have to show us their proposal. They have to show us their plan. Plain and simple. Hakeem Jeffries talked about it today. I believe the president will,” Schumer said. “Democrats are united: Show us the plan. That's the first step.”
Well, Democrats are mostly united, at least. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) called it “unreasonable” to not negotiate and said he’s not going to tell the House what to do.
“Kevin McCarthy and I know each other. We’re trying to build relationships, because we have responsibility,” said Manchin, who met privately with McCarthy last week.
But Manchin has always done his own thing — and at times of crisis, the Senate Democratic caucus is often nearly lockstep behind Schumer.
“It's pretty predictable. He wants to turn the heat up on Speaker McCarthy. And I would say it's not particularly productive, but maybe it's good political theater,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has sparred with Schumer for two decades. “I was visiting with some of the Texas congressional delegation at lunch [last week]. And they've sort of tuned it out.”
Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas), chair of the House Budget Committee, said Republicans want to get specific with fiscal changes “like the 2011 spending cap.” Even today, Republicans still praise aspects of the bipartisan 2011 deal, which created a failed deficit-reduction “supercommittee” and then imposed blunt spending cuts that both parties eventually eliminated.
Arrington suggested Republicans would seek a deal with Biden that could include things like a debt commission, a spending freeze or a 10-year spending deal with budget caps. In response to Democrats’ description of the GOP’s position as “extreme,” Arrington responded: “The American people will be the judge of what is extreme.”
But when it comes to the debt ceiling, Schatz said, “there's not going to be negotiation. They're gonna have to just realize that this thing is the biggest loser they’ve ever wrapped their arms around.”
That tack may seem to deviate from Schumer’s approach in the last Congress, but as majority leader, the New Yorkers relied on his own unofficial system for legislating. First, he tries to be bipartisan, and if that doesn't work, he tries to pass things without Republicans.
And if he can’t do either of those, then it’s time to bring the fight to the Senate floor and the cameras.
“I’ve always had a hierarchy,” Schumer said. “We'll try to work with them when we can, but when they're as extreme as they are, we have an obligation to stand up.”
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.