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Triumph of the Political Center: House Approves Debt Ceiling Deal


When speaking to a friend about the debt ceiling negotiations, I mentioned that there were incentives for centrists in Congress to get a deal done. My friend said incredulously, “Do we actually have centrists in Congress?”

Certainly, it is true that the country’s two largest parties have done so sorted and separated in the past 50 years. The average Democrat is more liberal and the average Republican is more conservative than the average was in the 1970s — or even a decade ago.

But with the House vote on GOP Chairman Kevin McCarthy’s deal with Democratic President Joe Biden to suspend the debt ceiling until January 1, 2025, its successful passage was undoubtedly carried by centrists. The middle may are shrinkingbut it still exists, and it is critical in a closely divided Congress.

The deal was negotiated by President Joe Biden, left, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and their representatives.
AP Photo/J. Scott Apple White

Ideological space within parties

Why did the center carry such weight?

As a starting point, it helps to look at the spectrum of ideology within each party. There is considerable ideological distance between, shall we say, Barbara Lee, a liberal California Democrator the four progressive members of what is called “The team”, and the two moderate Democrats, Jared Golden from Maine and that of Washington State Marie Gluesenkamp Perezwho voted with the Republicans in late May overthrow Biden’s Student Debt Relief Policy.

Likewise, there is ideological space between Golden and Gluesenkamp Perez’s fellow member of the moderate, bipartisan Troubleshooters Caucus, Don Bacon, a Republican from NebraskaAnd Colorado Republican and conservative brand Lauren Boebert.

Within the Republican-controlled House, this left plenty of room for GOP defectors vote against the debt ceiling compromisebut also delivered dozens of Democrats who voted in favorin the final 314-117 bipartisan vote. The bipartisan branch of Congress belies the fact that the ideological distance between moderates in both parties is not that great.

Another explanation for the power of the center in Congress now – and in the debt ceiling vote in the House – is the incentive that exists to be seen as a winning party. Be seen by voters as a party that gets things done helps win elections – and centrists are often the ones whose votes are somehow up for grabs.

That said, there are electoral costs to a party that is too united. On well-publicized votes where party unity is enforced by party leaders, voters may come to see their representatives as too distant from their own preferences. This is what some studies have suggested happened to the Democrats in the 2010 midterms related to the Affordable Care Act. Democrats had fiercely advocated for the law; as one scientific study put it, they”paid a significant price at the pollsfor that advocacy.

A stack of several pages of black print on white paper.
The draft bill negotiated by President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California to raise the country’s debt ceiling.
AP Photo/Jon Elswick

The middle is important

These incentives set the stage for the political bickering over the debt ceiling. Speaker McCarthy had a reason to pass legislation – to be seen as a winner. At the same time, there were members of the Democratic House who, driven by their own electoral prospects, wanted to be seen as moderates.

Josh Gottheimerwho co-chairs the Problem Solvers caucus, for example, is a Democrat from a moderate district in New Jersey with only one narrow democratic tilt. The bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus proved critical to the passage of the bill providing democratic votes to help the bill survive GOP defectors.

A complicating factor for this stimulus structure is the currently divided US government. If one party controlled Congress and the presidency, then it would be clear that that party would be blamed if the legislation did not pass. But with a Democratic president and a GOP House, poll data shows a nearly equal split in terms of who would be blamed if a debt ceiling deal failed. So both Democrats and Republicans had incentive to get a deal done.

While there is some debate in political science about the power of presidential coattailsmay the Democrats themselves believe that their future electoral fortune is at least partially tied to that of President Bidenanother incentive to support legislation he supports.

From here, the deal goes to the Senate, where moderates can be just as influential.

Given the smaller size of the Senate and the slim majority of Democrats, the influence of individual senators is more pronounced. The deal already includes a win for Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat who is running for a brutal re-election battle in 2024. The bill contained approval for a natural gas pipeline project in his state that Manchin has defended.

While the Senate vote is still underway, maneuvering the House debt ceiling shows that the center, while smaller, still matters.

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