Tomorrow, President Joe Biden will meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to discuss the federal budget and the looming inability of the United States to lawfully pay its bills unless Congress raises the debt ceiling. The two sides seem very far apart, but a resolution might be possible if the negotiators are creative. Let’s imagine how the meeting might go.
Biden: Mitch, Kevin, welcome to the Oval. Here’s the deal . . . .
McCarthy: Deal? We have a deal already?
Biden: What? No, c’mon man. You know that’s just how I begin half my sentences. Mitch here knows that from our time in the Senate together, don’t you old pal?
McConnell: Mr. President, you should pretend I’m not here. Chuck [Schumer] will give you whatever you need from the Senate.
McCarthy: So why are you here?
McConnell: Because seeing the misery of others makes me feel truly alive.
Biden: Alright fellas, let’s cut the malarkey and get down to brass tacks. Kevin, you know I can’t possibly agree to the bill you passed. It guts my signature legislative accomplishments and would slow economic growth.
McCarthy: Those are just Democrat talking points. Eliminating the new IRS agents will increase government revenues. Clean energy is a dirty communist plot. Drill baby drill!
Biden: Here’s the deal. We can discuss spending cuts as part of the regular budget process, but you know as well as I do that the debt ceiling statute is about paying for past appropriations. That’s why you guys didn’t try these shenanigans when the former guy was in here. If I give in to any of your demands now, you’ll make even bolder ones next year when we need to raise the ceiling again.
McConnell (chuckling): . . . if you give a mouse a cookie . . . .
McCarthy: Mr. President, I understand where you’re coming from . . .
Biden (interrupting): . . . Scranton, P-A, pal!
McCarthy: . . . but you have to understand where I’m coming from. I am utterly beholden to a band of crazies. For goodness sake, Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene both supported my candidacy but it still wasn’t enough for these clowns. If I were to agree to a clean debt ceiling bill, I’d face a motion to vacate the chair in a fetal heartbeat.
Biden: Well, I guess we’re at an impasse then. (Speaking to an aide not named Jimmy:) Hey Jimmy! What did we say we’d do if this happened? Something about a best worst option?
McConnell: Uhhhm, Mr. President, Kevin, might I make a potentially helpful suggestion?
Biden: Dang yes, Mitch. Get to it lickety-split.
McConnell: What if you were to make a deal that’s not a deal? Kevin agrees to move two pieces of legislation that he says are linked but that you say are unrelated, Mr. President. One is a clean debt ceiling suspension. The other makes some budget cuts. Would that work?
Biden: It would depend on what’s in the budget cuts, but sure, what the heck. It’s like my mom-mom always used to say, the greatest virtue is courage.
McCarthy: I don’t think you guys are listening to me. It’s not just Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, and Paul Gosar. Most of my caucus are friggin’ nuts. I think half of them would vote against Mitch’s plan even if it contained every budget cut they asked for. They’re against raising the debt ceiling on principle.
Biden: Well, I guess we’re at an impasse then. (Speaking to an aide not named Billy:) Hey Billy! What did we say we’d do if this happened? Not that stupid coin thing, something else, what was it?
Out-of-breath Congressman rushing into the room: Wait! I have an idea?
McConnell: Who’s this guy?
Now-slightly-less-out-of-breath Congressman: I’m Hakeem Jeffries!
McCarthy: He’s the Democrat leader in the House.
McConnell: Nancy Pelosi is not a Black man.
McCarthy: What’s your idea, Hakeem?
Jeffries: Kevin, remember when you lost fourteen votes before finally winning the Speakership?
McCarthy: Are you trying to make me cry?
Jeffries: No, no, listen. Imagine if some Democrats had supported you for Speaker. You could have marginalized the crazies in your caucus.
McCarthy: That would have been nice, I guess, but why are you bringing it up now?
Jeffries: Because we can do it now. Let’s say you and the President reach the deal-that’s-also-not-a-deal. Even if half your caucus votes against it, Democrats can supply the additional votes needed for passage. And then we can also supply the votes to keep you as Speaker if there’s a motion to vacate the chair.
McCarthy (tearing up): You’d do that for me?
Jeffries: Well, for the country, but sure.
McCarthy: Dang! It wouldn’t work. For one thing, I’ll need at least a majority of Republicans to get past the Hastert rule. And even if I can whip those votes, if I move a bill that depends on Democrat support, I’ll be primaried faster than you can say . . . .
Biden (interrupting): Hot diggity dog! I’ve got a better idea. Hakeem, you got the ball rolling on that discharge petition, right?
Jeffries: Yes, Mr. President.
Biden: So if my math is correct, if the House Democrats stick together, you’ll need only five Republican members to go along to get a debt ceiling increase through.
McCarthy: Only five? Now that Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger are out, you won’t find even one Republican willing to buck leadership if it means helping a Democrat President! Any Republican who votes for a discharge petition will have a well-funded primary opponent in less time than it takes . . . .
Biden (interrupting and calling to an aide not named Jenny or any variation thereof): Jenny! Bring me that list. (Upon being handed a piece of paper): Kevin, you’ve already got one Republican who’s retiring and not seeking any other office. Here’s a list of 31 Republican House seats that could flip in 2024. Jiminy Cricket, one of ’em is held by George Santos. Surely you can find another three who would be happier taking long vacations in Indonesia funded by Harlan Crow than fighting a likely losing battle to stay in D.C. Get them to vote for the discharge petition.
McConnell (moaning softly and tenting his fingers): Yes, Mr. President. Feel the power of the dark side.
McCarthy: Okay, okay, I think I see how this works. I would publicly oppose the discharge petition but if you and I can agree on a budget deal, I’ll quietly use it and some other inducements to secure the votes and retirements of a few Republicans.
An aide not named Louise: Mr. President, a delegation of trainspotters and Secretary Buttigieg are waiting for you in the East Room.
Biden: Thanks Louise. Okay, boys. Looks like we have a plan. Now we just need to come up with some budget cuts. Let’s stay in touch.