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Politics chat: The winners and losers in the debt ceiling negotiations


President Joe Biden yesterday signed the bill that will raise the U.S. debt limit, avoiding a government default with just a few days to spare. We heard a lot about what the Democrats wanted to keep and what the Republicans wanted to cut. But in the end, did anyone get what they wanted? NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is on the line with us now. Hi, Mara.


RASCOE: So it felt like it took the deal forever and a day to hammer out. And it looked like we were just about on the edge of catastrophe. But were we really? I didn't think we were. What's your main takeaway?

LIASSON: My main takeaway is that the laws of political gravity haven't been overturned completely. If you only have one house of Congress, you have to compromise. And for a while it looked like the new Trumpist House Republican Party didn't want to compromise or didn't think they had to. Some were willing to default. Some thought that the warnings about how catastrophic a default would be were fake news. But in the end, they had to accept much less than what they wanted because they simply didn't have the votes to pass everything they did want, period.

RASCOE: All right. So while both sides are going to sell this as a win, let's look at the winners and losers from a political sense, starting with President Biden. How does he come out of this deal?

LIASSON: President Biden comes out a winner. There was no big cuts to his policies, just some small decreases in domestic spending lasting for just two years, some small changes in the work requirements for people on food stamps. And for Biden, this was another bipartisan deal. That's his brand. He can add this to the list of other bipartisan deals he's gotten, like the infrastructure bill or the gun safety bill or the CHIPS Act and now the budget deal. He said when he ran in 2020 that he would try to bring back bipartisanship and some kind of comity to Washington, and now he can say, I made Washington work again. You're going to hear a lot of that from him as he runs for reelection. For Biden, the bottom line is that experience and wisdom and patience and restraint and compromise all matter.

RASCOE: How about Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy? How did he fare in this?

LIASSON: He's also a winner. He's a little bit of a loser, too. But the bottom line is that he got a narrow majority of his narrow majority to vote yes. He was able to lead his fractious conference much better than a lot of people expected. Whether the far-right deficit hawks and the Freedom Caucus will make his life miserable in the future remains to be seen. They're angry that he didn't hold out for deeper cuts than he finally accepted. But the point is, McCarthy got a deal. He was able to sell it as a victory, even though it was much less than what Republicans wanted.

RASCOE: So what about the American public, who the - our audience probably cares the most about? Did they emerge from this deal as winners or losers?

LIASSON: That's a really good question. The public is winners because there won't be a default, so there won't be massive unemployment and a recession, and they'll continue to get their Social Security checks. But they're also losers because this deal leaves in place one of the most ridiculous institutions in Washington, D.C., the debt ceiling itself. There's this giant contradiction between Congress which passes bills saying it's going to spend a certain amount of money. Then it refuses to allow the government, the Treasury Department, to borrow money to cover the spending it's already approved. It doesn't make any sense. And that one is on the Democrats because they had a chance when they controlled all three branches of government to get rid of the debt ceiling, which they say they want to do, but they didn't do that. And I guess the other losers might be the small percentage of Americans who actually care about debts and deficits. This deal actually only makes a very tiny dent in the deficit. It doesn't address the biggest drivers of the debt like entitlements, Social Security and Medicare.

RASCOE: And anyone who loses their aid, their government aid they were getting would probably be a loser, as well, in this situation.

LIASSON: Yes, certainly.

RASCOE: They would lose out. We know people on Capitol Hill really care about the debt ceiling deal. But how about voters? Does this rank high on their list of concerns?

LIASSON: Not at all. This was not a grassroots debate. There was not a populist call to cut the debt. This was an inside Washington fight. And we learned that even Republican voters don't care about the debt or deficit anymore like they used to in the Reagan era. Donald Trump put an end to that. He didn't care about debt. He famously said, I'm the king of debt. I love debt. And the Republican Party never once made a peep about raising the debt ceiling while Trump was in office, even though the debt and the deficit kept on getting bigger and bigger.

RASCOE: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.