(Bloomberg) -- Republican presidential contenders are lining up against Kevin McCarthy’s compromise on the US debt ceiling, giving a boost to restive conservatives the House speaker is trying to keep in his corner.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy have all deplored the measure, potentially emboldening the speaker’s critics who have threatened he faces a reckoning over the agreement.
“Our nation was careening towards bankruptcy before the debt deal, and it will still be careening towards bankruptcy after this debt deal,” DeSantis said Tuesday night at a campaign kickoff rally in West Des Moines, Iowa. “This is not gonna solve our nation’s fiscal problems.”
But there has been one notable exception. Former President Donald Trump, the 2024 GOP frontrunner and McCarthy ally, has gone conspicuously silent since the speaker and President Joe Biden reached the deal late Saturday.
Trump had earlier urged Republicans not to make a deal unless all of their demands were met — even if it meant sending the country into an unprecedented default. “That’s the way the Democrats have always dealt with us,” he wrote May 19 on his Truth Social platform. “Do not fold!!!”
Conservatives have seized on Trump’s initial opposition to raising the debt limit, even as his rhetoric softened the closer McCarthy got to a deal. The two spoke by phone about the negotiations last week as Trump played golf in Virginia. He told the speaker, “Make sure you get a good agreement.”
Trump’s silence and the maneuvering by his challengers underscores how his rivals are attempting to run to the right of him. The debt package is putting a spotlight on fiscal policy in a Republican primary race that so far has been dominated by social issues like abortion, gay rights, education and immigration.
DeSantis told reporters after the Tuesday rally he thinks Trump owes it to voters to take a position on the deal, asking, “Are you leading from the front, or are you waiting for polls to tell you what position to take?”
‘Business as Usual’
McCarthy’s future in the speaker’s chair rests on his ability to tamp down a conservative rebellion over the contents of the bill, which includes far less in deficit cuts than the original $4.8 trillion-cutting House bill. A floor vote is scheduled for later Wednesday on the measure.
In the Senate, Republican John Cornyn of Texas shrugged off any potential opposition from presidential candidates. Addressing the debt limit isn’t Trump’s responsibility, Cornyn said. “It’s ours.”
House members on McCarthy’s right flank, though, are pointing to Trump and DeSantis to rally colleagues to their cause.
“There’s a reason that our conservative allies are opposing this roundly,” said Representative Chip Roy of Texas, a key McCarthy antagonist. “Ron DeSantis, publicly opposed. President Trump said we should default rather than pursue this kind of lunacy.”
Scott, the only senator running for president, told Axios Wednesday McCarthy did a good job in negotiating but the deal didn’t go far enough. Scott said he would oppose it.
“Is it in our best interest as a nation to allow Joe Biden — someone we cannot trust on spending — to have an open checkbook? No limit on the credit card, until the end of his term?” Scott said. “My answer is no.”
Ramaswamy, who heads an asset management company and is running for president on an “anti-woke” platform, said he would “absolutely” vote against it if he were in Congress. He called the spending cuts in the budget agreement “window dressing.”
Pence, who is considering a 2024 bid but hasn’t officially entered the race, said the deal “doesn’t just kick the can down the road, it uses Washington smoke and mirror games to make small reforms.”
And Haley, a former South Carolina governor, called it “business as usual” and “no way to run our country’s fiscal affairs.”
One candidate not opposed to the bill is former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. “Nothing’s perfect, and that’s the result of compromise and having to work with this president,” he told Fox News on Tuesday.
‘Part of the problem’
For Trump and DeSantis, their positions in past debt ceiling fights could be weaponized by their opponents.
Challengers to Trump — who enjoys an average 31-point lead over DeSantis in national polls of Republicans with all others polling in single digits — have argued his record on the issue isn’t much better than the Democratic presidents who came before and after him.
Asked about the former president’s stance and DeSantis’s criticism, Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said, “DeSantis should be focused on his limp poll numbers and how his announcement launch failed to move any numbers for him.”
“I’ll be willing to use the veto power to discipline Congress’s spending,” DeSantis told a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, last week. “We haven’t had a president that’s been willing to kind of push that button in quite a while.”
But Haley has pointed out that DeSantis — as a US House member — voted for at least one debt limit increase that Trump signed into law. “The best way to fix Washington’s spending addiction is to elect people who have not been part of the problem,” she said.
During a May 10 CNN town hall, Trump tacitly acknowledged that it’s easier to oppose raising the borrowing cap when relieved of the responsibility of governing.
“I can’t imagine anybody ever even thinking of using the debt ceiling as a negotiating wedge,” he said in 2019.
Asked why his stance is different now, Trump replied, “Because now I’m not president.”
--With assistance from Christian Hall, Jack Fitzpatrick, Zach C. Cohen and Erik Wasson.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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