Let the debt games begin

Let the game of chicken begin. The US government bumped into its debt ceiling yesterday. Janet Yellen has begun “extraordinary cash management measures” to stave off default until June 5, setting the stage for a high-stakes, months-long, many-fronted battle in Washington.

It will pit the two parties against each other, the president against Congress, GOP hardliners against leadership. For now, the president and his party insist that they will only contemplate a “clean” debt ceiling raise; in other words, no negotiations, no concessions. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” is the overblown Democratic line du jour. But how long can this approach last? I don’t know, but given the drastic consequences of missing the deadline it is surely a matter of when, not if, Biden sits down at the negotiating table. Brave is the president willing to risk being in the hot seat when his government cannot pay Treasury bondholders.

On the other side of the aisle, the debt ceiling was central to the recent McCarthy speakership fight; the California congressman triumphed by promising holdouts that a Republican House would only consider lifting the debt ceiling if $130 billion of cuts to next year’s federal budget were found. The White House’s current plan is to bypass GOP leadership altogether, hoping that, given the tight margins in Congress, a deal can be worked out with moderate Republicans.

The fight will also shed light on the ideological contours of the contemporary Republican Party. Ignore those who use the adjectives “hardline,” “MAGA,” and “Trumpy” interchangeably when describing Republican holdouts in the debt fight. Trump made an interesting contribution to the debt debate this morning, warning his party against touching benefits programs in the negotiations. “Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security,” he said in a recorded video message seen by Politico ahead of its release. “Cut waste, fraud and abuse everywhere that we can find it and there’s plenty of it. But do not cut the benefits our seniors worked for and paid for their entire lives. Save Social Security, don’t destroy it.”

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Haley and Pompeo’s presidential positioning

Nikki Haley is the latest Republican to kinda, sorta throw her hat into the presidential primary ring. In an interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier Thursday, the former South Carolina governor and ex-UN ambassador hinted at a presidential run.

“I think we need a young generation to come in, step up and really start fixing things,” said Haley. “Can I be that leader? Yes, I think I can be that leader.”

The move comes as excerpts from Mike Pompeo’s forthcoming memoir suggest the former secretary of state will come out swinging in his own 2024 bid. In the book, Pompeo suggests that Hailey worked with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner to try to replace Mike Pence as Trump’s vice-president.

In another excerpt, Pompeo accuses Trump of asking him to tone down criticism of China over the pandemic in early 2020. The president, he claims, was fearful that a fight over Covid might derail his trade deal talks with Xi. The accusation is a sign of things to come, with a field of candidates determined to capitalize on the hawkish mood on China in next year’s primary.  Pompeo’s efforts, much like Haley’s hints at new leadership, aren’t exactly subtle.

The apprentices lose interest 

Not so long ago, ambitious young Republicans would have been desperate to work on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. But Cockburn reports that the former president’s 2024 operation is having trouble staffing up. He writes in his must-read Friday gossip column that “the presidential campaign has been reaching out to potential staffers in early primary states” but that “it’s not going great: a number of prospective operatives have rebuffed the Trump campaign’s advances, as they seek greener pastures elsewhere.” The latest sign that MAGA is losing its mojo.

The Democrats’ retirement conundrum

Speaking of plans for 2024, Tim Kaine is scheduled to announce today whether he will seek re-election in 2024. The Virginia senator suffers from long Covid and there has been speculation about his future for some time now.

The 2024 map already looks very difficult for Democrats, with twenty-three seats to defend compared to eleven for Republicans. Now retirements are making that uphill battle even tougher. Debbie Stabenow is stepping aside in an important Michigan race. And now Kaine could give up his party’s incumbency advantage in a state where Republicans feel as though they are on the march.

A yet more nightmarish scenario is possible: some wonder whether Joe Manchin — pretty much the only person who stands a chance of winning a Senate seat as a Democrat in West Virginia — will step down before the next election. Another moderate, Montana’s Jon Tester, the only statewide elected Democrat in his state, hasn’t said if he’ll be running again in 2024. Tester and Manchin are two of the most vulnerable Democrats up next year, and their party’s chances in those races will fade fast if either of them decides to step down.

What you should be reading today

Peter Van Buren: Joe Biden’s scandal of leadership
David Cohen: Jacinda Ardern’s tattered legacy
Ben Kew: The Pink Tide returns to Latin America
Jason Willick, Washington Post: Why the US must calculate a solvency risk as it arms Ukraine
Rafael Mangual, City Journal: The decarceration crowd are unrepentant
Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal: George Santos has got to go

Poll watch

President Biden job approval
Approve: 42.8 percent
Disapprove: 52.9 percent
Net approval: -10.1 (RCP average) 

2024 Republican presidential nomination
Trump: 44 percent
DeSantis: 32 percent
Pence: 5 percent
Haley: 4 percent
Cruz: 3 percent (YouGov/Economist)

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