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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Meet the House Republicans who Democrats hope will defect on the debt limit

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, on Feb. 7, 2023. Faced with an impasse over raising or suspending the nation’s debt limit, some White House officials are looking to a clause in the 14th Amendment to ensure the United States does not default on its debt.

By Catie Edmondson

House Democrats who this week began a long-shot bid attempting to force a debt limit increase bill to the floor are pinning their hopes not just on a convoluted legislative gambit, but also on another highly improbable feat: getting a small group of Republicans to cross party lines and join them.

While they concede it faces long odds, Democrats privately argue there is a path to pulling it off — or at least to coming close enough that Republicans feel compelled to cut a deal with them to head off a catastrophic default.

It is based on the belief that some Republican lawmakers — especially among the 18 who represent districts that President Joe Biden won in 2020 — could be persuaded to vote with Democrats to pass an 11th-hour debt limit increase that would pull the nation from the brink of financial ruin.

“There are 18 House Republicans who like to call themselves ‘moderates,’” said Rep. Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee. “Here’s a chance for them to really put their money where their mouth is. Join with House Democrats to ensure we don’t suffer the first-ever default in American history.”

Democrats on Tuesday set in motion a plan that would allow them to bypass Republican leaders and bring up legislation to increase the debt ceiling without the spending cuts and policy changes the GOP has demanded in exchange. They could do so through a discharge petition, which forces a bill to the floor if a majority of the House signs on to calling for it.

If every Democrat supported the move, at least five Republicans would be needed to advance such a measure to a vote.

There is little evidence so far that House Republicans — even those in the most Biden-friendly districts — are inclined to undercut Speaker Kevin McCarthy, especially before he gets to the negotiating table with the president. The two are scheduled to meet in person Tuesday at the White House for the first time since February.

Republicans of all stripes have said they are in favor of spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, and bucking the party to vote with Democrats to increase the nation’s borrowing limit would be seen as tantamount to a political betrayal.

But that could change if talks between McCarthy and Biden stall and the nation barrels toward a default, now projected as soon as June 1.

Here are some Republicans to watch.

The blue-state Republicans

The predicted red wave for Republicans never quite materialized in 2022. But in New York, the party routed Democrats, partly as a result of a haywire redistricting cycle, and six Republican candidates won election in congressional districts that had voted for Biden.

Democrats now consider five of those freshmen as some of the top prospects for cutting a deal. One of them, Rep. Mike Lawler, who represents the suburbs north of New York City, had previously privately asked about the feasibility of a discharge petition.

But he has also laid responsibility for negotiating a deal squarely at Biden’s feet.

“The White House needs to acknowledge the fact that there is no longer one-party rule,” Lawler said in an interview earlier this year. “They need to negotiate in good faith, and they can’t circumvent the speaker by just going to myself and my colleagues in these Biden districts.”

Democrats are also considering a group of lawmakers from California, including Reps. David Valadao, Young Kim, Michelle Steel and John Duarte, who had one of the closest elections in the nation.

Valadao has cultivated a reputation for years of sometimes defying his party, including when he voted to impeach President Donald Trump in 2021 for inciting an insurrection at the Capitol. Complicating any Democratic efforts to recruit Valadao: He is a close ally of McCarthy, who helped protect him from a serious primary challenge after he voted for impeachment.

The veteran ‘problem solvers’

Some of the earliest indicators of whether there is appetite among Biden-district Republicans to strike a deal would come from two of the most outspoken centrist veterans in the conference: Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Don Bacon of Nebraska.

Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent and U.S. attorney, has previously bucked his party, especially on gun control. He was one of two Republicans who voted last year to ban assault rifles and one of eight who voted in 2021 to expand background checks for firearms purchasers.

Bacon, a former Air Force officer, helped lead the legislative charge to strip the names of Confederate leaders from military bases and held firm even after the Trump White House called him and urged him to abandon the effort.

Neither man has given any indication that he would break from his party to raise the debt ceiling. But Fitzpatrick told E&E News that he voted for the House GOP bill — which conditioned a debt limit increase on spending cuts and policy changes — only because he knew it would never become law.

The longest of the long shots

Some Biden-district lawmakers, including two freshmen, Reps. Jen Kiggans of Virginia and Juan Ciscomani of Arizona, quickly became favorites of House Republican leaders and are unlikely to defect.

Kiggans, a former Navy helicopter pilot, has in fact been on the front line of GOP efforts to combat messaging from the Biden administration that House Republicans’ bill would gut veterans’ health care programs.

“I’m disgusted that the VA would blatantly lie about this bill & willingly use our nation’s heroes as political pawns,” she wrote on Twitter.

That also goes for Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona, who has hung on to his Biden-friendly seat despite repeated Democratic efforts to dislodge him. Schweikert, who has previously aligned himself with the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, has cut a far more conservative figure than his increasingly liberal district would suggest.

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