Republicans are girding themselves to take a hard line in debt ceiling negotiations with Joe Biden and the Democrats, threatening to send America into an economic crisis if the president and his party don’t agree to spending cuts. The trouble? Republicans can’t say what, exactly, they want to slash. “I want to look the president in the eye [and hear him] tell me there’s not one dollar of wasteful spending in government,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters Tuesday. “Is there not some money that President Biden can identify that’s wasteful in Washington?” added his deputy, Steve Scalise. “There’s gotta be cuts in spending,” far-right Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose influence has risen in McCarthy’s House majority, told NBC News. “That has to happen.” But what will those cuts be? “I haven’t really formulated an exact list,” she told the outlet.
This is, of course, partly just your run-of-the-mill GOP obstructionism—and not to mention, a callback to the debt-ceiling crisis Republicans manufactured a decade ago, during Barack Obama’s second term. You may recall Ted Cruz, less than a year into his Senate career, leading the way for a government shutdown and reading Green Eggs and Ham during a filibuster. But McCarthy and his caucus seem to be punching up the absurdity even more this time around: Not only are they insisting that Biden negotiate with them—they’re requiring that he come up with their demands. As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer put it to reporters Wednesday: “Until McCarthy has a plan, a plan that can pass the House with Republican support, his going to the White House is like going with no cards in his hand.”
There’s a reason for that: As Marc Goldwein, an expert at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told NBC News, it would be more or less unrealistic to balance the budget without making cuts to the programs they say they won’t touch. “If you exempted defense, veterans, Social Security, and Medicare spending, you’d have to cut everything else by 85%,” Goldwein said. “It’s possible as a mathematical proposition. But the question is: Is it possible as a policy proposition? And the answer is no.” McCarthy and his allies might talk a big game about fiscal responsibility. But leaders are aware that any slashes to Social Security and Medicaid—as some conservatives have hinted called for—is sure to draw fierce political blowback. Even Donald Trump, who has proven himself totally incapable of showing anything close to self-restraint, has warned his party against touching entitlement programs. So it’s no surprise Republicans are trying to punt the hard or unpopular decisions to Biden.
Fortunately, the president doesn’t seem to be taking the bait. On Thursday, Biden will give a speech blasting Republicans for playing chicken with the nation’s economy, as well as for suggesting, as Oklahoma Congressman Kevin Hern has, that the GOP should “look at everything,” including entitlement programs. “The president will…contrast his plan with Republicans,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters in a Wednesday briefing. That shouldn’t be too difficult, considering Republicans can hardly be said to have a plan at the moment, beyond making things as painful as possible for Biden. But make no mistake: There is real danger in the GOP’s brinkmanship. The craziest members of the caucus are pushing the country closer to a cliff, and it’s unclear McCarthy is strong enough to pull it back from the edge. “I think these people are nuts,” as Democratic Senator Brian Schatz told Politico, “and they’re serious.”