Kevin McCarthy in Driver’s Seat as Debt Ceiling Negotiations With Biden Resume Monday; Polls Show Strong Majority of Americans Back GOP Position, Approval of McCarthy Rising

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy addressing debt ceiling negotiations, backed by House and Senate Republicans, U.S. Capitol, May 17, 2023, screen image via Speaker McCarthy.

As brinksmanship debt ceiling negotiations between Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Joe Biden are set to resume late Monday afternoon at the White House in the face of a looming June 1 deadline, an AP/NORC poll released last Friday shows a strong majority of Americans–63 percent (58 percent of Democrats!)–support the Republican position of reducing deficit spending as opposed to Biden’s initial long-standing position of an unconditional debt ceiling increase.

House Republicans under McCarthy’s leadership have passed the only bill on the debt ceiling, the Limit, Save Grow Act of 2023.

A Harvard/Harris poll (page 47) also released last Friday has support for the GOP position at 60/40. A stunning majority want Republicans to stick to their guns “Should the Republicans give the Democrats a debt ceiling increase without constraints, or should they hold out for spending constraints?” 62% say “Hold out for spending constraints”, “The Democrats say just raise it while the Republicans want to put in spending restraints. Should the Democrats hold fast and not negotiate, or should they negotiate spending constraints with the Republicans?”, only 37 percent say “The Democrats should hold fast.”

The polls explain why Biden has reversed himself this month, engaging in negotiations with McCarthy and now supporting reducing deficit spending, albeit via tax increases.

Other polls this month show that McCarthy, unlike Biden has become more popular this year as Americans get to know him and see him in action as Speaker. McCarthy has a higher approval rating than disapproval rating–a rarity for leaders of either party these days. The Real Clear Politics average of McCarthy’s approve/disapprove stands at 36/36, a tie, but with the two latest polls this month having McCarthy above water 34/33 (Harvard/Harris) and 42/39 (Economist/YouGov).

McCarthy started his speakership this year underwater in polls. Economist/YouGov had him at 34/49 in early January. Every poll in January had McCarthy underwater. As Americans have seen him in action, McCarthy’s approval has slowly risen to the high 30s and 40s while his disapproval has come down from the high to mid-forties to the high thirties and low forties. (In contrast, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was underwater by double digits for years when she was Speaker.

McCarthy is polling stunningly well in the Economist/YouGov poll:

Biden’s Real Clear Politics average approve/disapprove stands at 41.5/53.7, 12.2 percent underwater.

Even though the AP/Norc poll shows Americans, including Democrats, support the Republican position, because the poll does not identify the GOP tying reducing deficit spending to raising the debt ceiling nor Biden saying he wanted an unconditional increase, the poll shows majorities disapproving of how both Biden and Republicans are handling the debt ceiling. Also, the poll is plus seven net Democrat.

What matters though is the strong support for reducing deficit spending by Democrat voters and Americans at large and how McCarthy is perceived by voters.

McCarthy, who has a soft-spoken, easy going southern California manner and explains his positions without heated rhetoric even as he hangs tough on those positions, has not been demonized by Democrats and the media the way Newt Gingrich was when he became speaker in 1995.

Newsweek cover, How the Gingrich Stole Christmas, December 14, 1995 issue.


McCarthy has played hardball with Biden, but in a genteel manner. He has brought Biden to the negotiating table and forced Biden to cancel his post-G7 Japan summit trips to Australia and Papua New Guinea to return early to the White House. McCarthy pulled his negotiators while Biden was in Japan, demanding to speak with Biden on the phone. Biden obliged on Sunday and the two agreed to meet Monday af the White House. The one-on-one meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m.

McCarthy has set the scope of the negotiations. He surprised Biden and the Democrats by passing a debt ceiling bill, got support from the GOP Senate for the bill and has frozen out House and Senate Democrats in the negotiations. Aside from the Oval Office meetings with McCarthy and Biden accompanied by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), the nitty gritty negotiations are being conducted by senior White House staff and House members hand-picked by McCarthy. (Kamala Harris attended one Oval Office meeting for show but Biden has otherwise kept her far from the negotiations.)

Oval Office debt ceiling meeting with Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Speaker McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Schumer and House Minority Leader Jeffries, May 16, 2023, White House photo.
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