House Republicans, Pushing Past Divisions, Press Toward Debt Limit Vote

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WASHINGTON — House Republican leaders pressed ahead on Wednesday with legislation to raise the debt ceiling while cutting spending and unraveling major elements of President Biden’s domestic agenda, opening debate on the bill even as they scrounged for support to pass it.

The measure, which would cut federal spending by nearly 14 percent over a decade, would undo some of Mr. Biden’s clean energy tax credits and student loan cancellation plan and impose stricter work requirements for federal nutrition and health programs starting next year. It would be dead on arrival in the Democratic-led Senate and at the White House, where Mr. Biden’s advisers have warned that it would draw his veto.

But Speaker Kevin McCarthy, whose reputation and influence were on the line in the steepest test he has faced since winning his post, has described the plan as a way to strengthen his hand as he seeks to force a debt confrontation with the president.

In a closed-door meeting with Republicans in the basement of the Capitol on Wednesday morning, Mr. McCarthy pleaded with his conference to back the measure so he could open negotiations with Mr. Biden, according to a person who attended the session and described his remarks on the condition of anonymity.

The House was on track to pass the legislation as early as Wednesday evening, though the vote promised to be a cliffhanger given lingering concerns among some Republicans and the party’s slim majority.

The action came after a marathon round of negotiating by Republican leaders that intensified in the wee hours of Wednesday morning and continued all day as Mr. McCarthy tried to nail down the votes. He agreed to jettison a provision rolling back tax credits that the Biden administration put in place for ethanol, a change demanded by a bloc of Midwesterners. The speaker also agreed to move up by a year, to 2024, the imposition of work requirements for Medicaid and food stamp recipients, bowing to far-right lawmakers who insisted on tougher terms for receiving public benefits.

Mr. Biden has demanded that Republicans increase the nation’s borrowing limit — projected to be reached as soon as this summer without action by Congress — with no conditions. Without a deal to do so, the United States would default on its debt, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

It was still unclear whether the modifications had won Mr. McCarthy enough votes to pass the plan, which he has conceded has no hope of enactment.

“This bill is to get us to the negotiations,” he said on Tuesday. “It is not the final provisions, and there’s a number of members who will vote for it going forward to say there are some concerns they have with it. But they want to make sure the negotiation goes forward because we are sitting at $31 trillion of debt.”

Still, some hard-right lawmakers were balking at raising the debt ceiling — a vote some G.O.P. lawmakers have proudly never taken — and demanding more changes to the bill or commitments on unrelated matters.

With a razor-thin majority and Democrats expected to be united in their opposition, Republican leaders could afford few defections.

Democrats condemned the Republican legislation, assailing it for across-the-board cuts to federal programs, stricter work requirements for qualifying for Medicaid and food stamps and a rollback of regulatory programs.

They portrayed the plan as tantamount to holding the American economy hostage to far-right policy demands and denounced the last-minute changes.

“My analysis of this new plan is that it is even more draconian, even more devastating, even worse, even more mean,” Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, said after Mr. McCarthy’s round of revisions in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. “Your problem with this bill was that it didn’t screw people fast enough.”

House Republicans made the modifications after a group of more than half a dozen holdouts became vocal about their opposition to the bill.

“I am dubious about Speaker McCarthy’s debt ceiling proposal,” Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “Going off the fiscal cliff at the Republicans’ 60-mph plan or the Democrats’ 80-mph plan results in the same thing: a horrific crash.”

Representative Nancy Mace, Republican of South Carolina, said the proposed spending cuts — which fall well short of what the party once demanded — “wouldn’t move the needle much” and said she did not understand why House Republicans were not backing a more aggressive proposal to strengthen their negotiating hand.

“It’s weak, in my opinion,” Ms. Mace said. “And if the president is just going to veto it and say, ‘To hell with all of you,’ then put the best plan forward.”

If House Republicans are ultimately unable to pass the legislation, it would be a monumental failure for Mr. McCarthy and his leadership team and embolden Democrats to hold firm to their current stance of demanding a debt ceiling increase with no strings attached.

Conservative groups urged Republicans to approve the bill. Jessica Anderson, the executive director of the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation, called it “a strong position for conservatives and a message to the Biden administration that these are the American people’s minimum requirements in the debt ceiling negotiations.”

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, who has repeatedly called for Republicans to outline their plan to avoid a default, archly advised House Republicans to shelve the bill.

“I urge Speaker McCarthy to stop wasting any more time on this D.O.A. — dead on arrival — bill,” Mr. Schumer said. “Time is running out for Congress to work together to avoid catastrophe.”

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