Well, I’m officially not scared of the Freedom Caucus anymore.
The big losers in this debt deal? Not Joe Biden, by a long shot. Politically, he’s the biggest winner. Not Kevin McCarthy. He did what politicians normally do—he cut a deal—and he’s still the speaker. Not the Democratic Party’s left; 46 of them voted against the bill, but that was all orchestrated so that some Democrats could protest the cuts in the deal while Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries made sure the party as a whole backed their president. I’m certain Pramila Jayapal, the House Progressive Caucus chair who voted “no,” supports Joe Biden no less fully today than she did yesterday.
No—the losers are the Freedom Caucus. Remember six months ago? Two months ago? They were going to kill this deal, submarine their own speaker, cost him his job, and send the country into default and the world into economic chaos. They held all the cards. They drew blood out of McCarthy’s flesh during the speakership vote and held the sword of Damocles over his head. The conventional wisdom, which I believed along with everybody else, was that the red-hot backbenchers were going to foment a coup against McCarthy if he dared to cut a deal with the enemy.
So what happened? Yes, 71 right-wingers voted “no.” And they made a lot of noise in the run-up to the vote. But their opposition didn’t take, and the fire never spread the way they’d hoped. There was less suspense around this vote Wednesday night than there was around the Atlanta-Oakland game. (The Atlanta Braves are in first place in the NL East, while the A’s are on track to have the worst record in the history of baseball; unsurprisingly, the Braves won 4–2.) The Freedom Caucus convinced no one.
Instead, 149 Republicans rejected Freedom Caucus arguments and voted “yea.” And have a gander at what they voted for! It was almost complete capitulation. Here are some quick comparisons of what was in the GOP bill passed in April and what ended up in the deal*:
- On defense and veterans spending, they wanted 10-year caps, meaning that spending could increase for a decade. They got two-year caps.
- They wanted the full $80 billion Biden added to the IRS cut. They got a $21 billion cut.
- On student loans, they wanted a full clawback of Biden administration rule changes. They got nothing.
- On work requirements for people on public assistance, they wanted many new requirements for people receiving various forms of public assistance. The only thing that came out of the wash was stricter work requirements for nonparent adults from ages 50 to 54—a tiny sliver of what they sought.
- On green energy tax credits, they were after full repeal. They got nothing.
- On overall spending, Biden’s budget proposal was around $800 billion for the affected programs; the Republicans wanted that cut to $550 billion. The final number was $690 billion—still pretty big cuts, yes, but closer to the Biden number than the House bill number.
Moreover, a widely read newsletter on global financial markets reported Wednesday that spending under this deal might actually go up. This is because Congress approved a large boost to spending last year whose impacts this bill would not fully mitigate.
If you had showed all these numbers to Capitol Hill mavens a month ago, I think nine out of 10 would have agreed: Kevin McCarthy is a dead man. But today, not only is he still the speaker, if you read the morning tip sheets, you will see what I saw in Playbook—not just that McCarthy is safe but that if there is an attempt by any far-right member to go after him, “the rest of the conference would circle wagons.”
Where does this leave the Freedom Caucus? Completely and utterly toothless. They whined, but that’s really about it. They had leverage they refused to use. I have no idea why. Maybe some of them actually aren’t crazy, aren’t here to burn the place down, and understand the ramifications of default. Maybe the bankers and venture capitalist people and commercial real estate barons and lumber magnates in their districts all called them and said, “Are you nuts?” Maybe the ghost of Bob Michel spiked the water in the GOP conference meeting room. Whatever it was turned them into pussycats.
Will this hold? Probably not. Howard Fineman tweeted Thursday morning: “This moment of temporary sanity on the Hill will of course be followed by a compensatory year and a half of face-ripping political carnage on all fronts.”
That may be. James Comer is still James Comer. That guy is batty enough to try to get Tara Reade to testify from Russia. Who knows what madness awaits. These people don’t believe in democracy, so they’re still capable of Lord knows what.
But let’s take a lesson away from this episode. The Freedom Caucus is a bunch of bullies. And we’ve known since Beaver Cleaver finally stood up to Lumpy Rutherford that once you call a bully out, he backs down. The Biden White House should take note. These people can be rolled.
* This article originally misstated the month in which the House GOP passed its debt-limit bill.