Why the House Freedom Caucus’ debt ceiling demands matter

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As a dangerous debt ceiling deadline draws closer, leaders from both parties expressed cautious optimism yesterday that budget talks are advancing in a constructive way, and there’s a chance an agreement will come together before the United States defaults on its obligations.

It was against this backdrop that Congress’ most right-wing faction yesterday called for the negotiations to end before a deal can be reached. The Washington Post reported:

The House Freedom Caucus said it’s calling on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to suspend his negotiation on raising the debt limit with the White House and instead focus on getting the House-passed “Limit, Save, Grow Act” through the Senate. “There should be no further discussion until the Senate passes the legislation,” a statement from the Republican group said.

Here’s how the far-right contingent sees it: The House passed a regressive, partisan ransom note, which Freedom Caucus members effectively wrote. As Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz recently told Politico, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his team “just picked up the House Freedom Caucus plan and helped us convert it into the legislative text.”

For all the talk about pursuing a “compromise” and a “deal,” this faction is apparently convinced that the House-passed measure must be approved by the Democratic-led Senate and signed by the Democratic president. If they don’t like the far-right legislation, then Republicans should impose an economic catastrophe on Americans and the world.

In a tweet, the Freedom Caucus, in reference to their preferred bill, added, “No more discussion on watering it down. Period.”

It’s important to emphasize that no one in positions of authority seemed to care much about the Freedom Caucus’ huffing and puffing. The negotiations did not end; GOP leaders didn’t bother to respond to the far-right call; and senators left town as part of the upper chamber’s Memorial Day break.

In other words, the House Freedom Caucus tried to make a fuss yesterday, and the key players effectively yawned.

So why am I mentioning it? Because the Republicans’ message helped underscore a legislative detail that often goes overlooked: If there’s an agreement that prevents a default, House GOP leaders are likely to need some Democratic votes.

It’s possible, of course, that the House Freedom Caucus is just engaged in hollow posturing, but that hasn’t traditionally been their modus operandi. It’s more likely that they’ll balk in response to any final bill that isn’t as outlandish as their original “Limit, Save, Grow Act.”

And for GOP leaders, that’s when the legislative arithmetic would get tricky. On any given floor vote, Republicans can lose no more than five of their own members without relying on Democratic votes. With this in mind, yesterday’s House Freedom Caucus message served as a timely reminder: Some far-right Republicans are prepared to reject any kind of bipartisan compromise, and in all likelihood, the total would be greater than five.

At that point, if McCarthy and GOP leaders expect to get a deal across the finish line — if, of course, such a deal materializes — they’ll need Democratic votes.

As Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told Politico this week, “What is really important, I think, to understand here is that … no matter what, Kevin McCarthy … he needs Democrats to bail him out.”

That’s almost certainly correct, and it’s a detail that should carry real weight in the negotiations: The more concessions Democrats make, the more likely rank-and-file progressive members will balk. A bill that’s too far to the right to satisfy House Democrats, and not reactionary enough to satisfy House Republicans, is likely to struggle to reach 218 votes.

Watch this space.

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the editor of MaddowBlog and an MSNBC political contributor. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”

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