Updated Jun 1, 2023, 7:07am EDT

Did Washington underestimate Kevin McCarthy?

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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The News

Kevin McCarthy’s allies say it’s finally time for him to get a little respect.

After some last-minute procedural drama on Wednesday, House lawmakers passed the new bill to lift the debt ceiling negotiated by the speaker and President Biden in a blowout, 314-117 bipartisan vote. Overcoming angry opposition from his right flank, McCarthy delivered support from 149 Republicans, a rebuff to critics who once questioned whether he could control his party’s unruly conservative wing enough to deliver a debt deal.

“McCarthy has always been underestimated,” Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., one of the lead negotiators on the deal to raise the debt limit, told reporters Wednesday. “There have been multiple times this calendar year alone that he’s been underestimated. The votes tonight will prove out why that is the wrong proposition here in Washington.”

Rep. Darrell Issa, McCarthy’s fellow Californian, was even more effusive. “This is the best speaker with the best negotiation we’ve ever gotten with the president of either party,” he told Semafor. “Is it perfect? No, but they never are.”

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Our View

The superlatives may be a little over the top, but McCarthy’s allies have a point: The national press and much of official Washington appears to have underestimated the man.


McCarthy has never enjoyed much esteem in certain corners of Washington — Politico once ran an entire article about how reporters thought he wasn’t particularly smart. And from the moment the Californian first picked up the gavel, he was widely written off as a historically weak leader, a speaker “in name only” who appeared unequipped to manage his party’s slim, 5-seat majority. To win his new perch in the face of right-wing opposition, he’d given up much of its formal power, agreeing to rules that would hand GOP hardliners more say over what bills reached the House floor and allowing any one member to call a snap vote to oust him if they felt he stepped out of line.

The New York Times warned that McCarthy had handed the GOP’s arch-conservative wing “the ability to hold him hostage” and that the country “should brace for the likelihood of a Congress in perpetual disarray for the next two years.” Many doubted he would be able to negotiate a debt ceiling compromise (our colleagues among them) and wondered if McCarthy might risk a default simply to keep his job.

By all accounts, the White House agreed. According to Politico, Biden aides largely believed that the competing demands of hard-right and moderate Republicans made it impossible for McCarthy to move a debt-ceiling bill with only GOP votes. So the president spent much of the year publicly refusing to even discuss the issue with McCarthy until he passed a spending plan of his own, assuming the speaker would fail and be forced to cave.

Instead, McCarthy pulled off a legislative two-step, forcing Biden to the negotiating table by rallying Republicans behind a deeply partisan bill hardliners would agree to, then keeping the right on board just long enough to hash out a viable compromise. Conservatives may be unhappy with the final bill, but for now there doesn’t appear to be any serious effort to topple McCarthy.

Senior Republicans said McCarthy succeeded in part by bringing some of his antagonists from the speaker’s race into the decision-making process, including by placing three hardline conservatives onto the prestigious Rules Committee. Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, the panel’s chair, told Semafor that working closely with conservatives like Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian known for bucking leadership who ultimately backed the bill, helped them “identify problems early.”


“He’s really built the team where rank-and-file members feel ownership of this body and these work products,” Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota told Semafor.

House Republican leaders have exaggerated some of their wins in the debt ceiling deal, which in many ways looks like a relatively normal budget agreement. McHenry has called it the “largest deficit reduction package in American history,” for instance, which as a Republican budget expert put it, is “not remotely true by any measure.” On the left, meanwhile, some commentators have suggested Biden outplayed McCarthy by keeping Democrats’ concessions to a minimum, and possibly slipping in a small expansion of the food stamp program.

Maybe. But McCarthy has shown he can govern effectively without kowtowing to the GOP’s hard right — no easy feat in the modern Republican party. A hostage, he was not.

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Room for Disagreement

Not everyone is dolling out credit to McCarthy. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., tweeted her opposition to the vote Tuesday morning and added, “Washington is broken. Republicans got outsmarted by a President who can’t find his pants.”