Rep. George Santos (R-NY) is running for re-election—a move that’s been met with literal laughs from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and silence from Republican campaign arms. But in a narrowly divided chamber where every vote counts, Santos may get to show McCarthy who gets the last word and, ultimately, the last laugh.
In totally separate, not-at-all related news to his campaign woes, Santos told HuffPost on Friday that he is “solidly” against McCarthy’s debt ceiling plan.
Analysts expect the United States to run out of its borrowing authority in June or July. And McCarthy is desperate to pass a House GOP budget plan on the debt limit soon—a legislative win that could put Democrats in a negotiating bind and give Republicans the upper hand on enacting budget cuts.
But Santos seems to recognize his own leverage. He seems to recognize that he could use McCarthy and the rest of the GOP’s help with his re-election, and that he shouldn’t just give away his vote for free.
While Santos hasn’t exactly publicly laid out the ransom for his vote, he also hasn’t said anything substantive about his supposed policy disagreement.
What we do know, however, is that Santos is willing to continue talking to McCarthy directly. (Santos was spotted exiting the Speaker’s office Thursday morning—and says he maybe could come around.)
McCarthy and Santos aren’t exactly on the best of terms. After Santos supported McCarthy through all 15 speaker votes in January, McCarthy pushed Santos to step back from his committee assignments amid all the controversy about Santos basically composing a resume of pure fiction.
When McCarthy was asked last week whether he’d support the incumbent congressman—as leadership generally does by default—McCarthy let out a guffaw and added that he didn’t even know Santos had announced.
“We will wait and see who all files,” McCarthy told CNN.
McCarthy’s not alone in his reluctance to the congressman’s re-election bid.
The National Republican Congressional Committee—the campaign arm for House Republicans—did not respond to a request for comment on whether the group intends to support Santos’ re-election bid. The NRCC was instrumental in helping Santos’ get elected, and it’s been a hot-button issue for years whether the NRCC should protect incumbents from primary challengers.
Protect the House New York 2024, a newly formed group, is hoping to shield House Republicans from New York who hold seats Democrats are targeting for 2024. (New York was a key state for GOP pickups in 2022.) But Santos, who’s in a New York swing district, was conveniently left off the group’s roster.
And Congressional Leadership Fund, an outside House Republican campaign arm (that did not spend on Santos’ 2022 campaign), also declined to comment on whether it will support Santos’ re-election bid.
And that all comes as Santos’ first-quarter filings show he’s bleeding cash.
If McCarthy had won the House majority by the double digits he projected in 2022, he wouldn’t need to worry about lone-wolf members holding his votes hostage. But he currently holds a razor-thin majority—wherein he can only lose four Republicans if, as expected, all Democrats vote against his far-right proposal to raise the debt ceiling.
Jam-packed with House-Republican priorities like vaguely cutting government spending, repealing parts of President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, blocking student debt cancellation, adding work requirements to programs like low-income food benefits, rescinding COVID funds and much, much more, the bill is set to appeal to huge swaths of the House Republican Conference.
But it would still be doomed in the Senate, where Democrats hold control and moderate Republicans have swing-state voters to consider. Senate Republicans seem to acknowledge the pickle they’re in, but even with a debt limit cliff approaching, some think there’s time to spare.
“I don’t know where the cliff is. And of course, that is a little bit of a moving target,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-SD) told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “But if we presume for a minute that we have until August, and I think that’s sort of the general tone here, we have plenty of time to have that discussion. Kudos to Kevin McCarthy for giving us that time to have the discussion.”
As Cramer indicated, McCarthy’s proposal is meant to give Republicans cover. They can negotiate with Democrats on a real package, but always fall back on the idea that House Republicans already passed a debt limit increase—if Senate Democrats don’t want to default, they can always take up the House’s painful plan.
There are actually multiple gambits at work here. McCarthy is trying to give Republicans leverage in the negotiations by allowing them to always revert back to the talking point that they passed a debt ceiling plan. But he’s also firming up his own position in the GOP conference by placating the most conservative voices, showing them that he’s willing to take up their ideas on dismantling social welfare programs and cutting government spending to potentially recession-inducing levels.
For conservatives, the gambit is even simpler: pass the House GOP bill, and only the House GOP bill. If compromise language comes down from the Senate, they can insist on not giving it a vote and hope that no Republican joins Democrats to pass that legislation. (Democrats could always use a discharge petition to force a vote and bypass McCarthy, but that would take time, and there’s no guarantee it’ll work.)
At the very least, Republicans are hoping that passing their own bill will strengthen their position. They could always fall back on their House-passed bill, and argue that voters should blame Democrats if there’s no debt limit increase—an economically painful possibility in its own right.
But Santos has somehow found himself at a powerful crossroads. Because McCarthy needs almost every vote, he has the opportunity to extract concessions McCarthy almost certainly wouldn’t want to make.
For now, Santos seems to be rolling with the idea that he’s “solidly” against the GOP debt limit bill because it doesn’t go far enough. A source close to the 34-year-old freshman congressman told Politico that his opposition was over “weak work requirements.” Those concerns would mirror the concerns raised by conservatives, who Santos has aligned himself with. But they would also go against many of his moderate district’s interests, both politically and practically.
Santos has been forthright about his own family being on food stamps and other assistance programs for most of his life. So it’s at least a little curious why he’d want to hamper those programs.
Unless there’s more to the story.