Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The vital center has saved America from default – and Congress from itself. Again.
On Wednesday night, the House of Representatives passed the debt limit bill, with 149 Republicans and 165 Democrats voting for it. On Thursday night, the Senate the pass the bill as well.
The negotiated deal between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy follows what should be a familiar script.
After ideological extremes in Congress push for an all-or-nothing position, eventually a deal is struck at the 11th hour. This causes much gnashing of teeth – particularly among the far right – who accuse the Republican speaker of betraying conservatism through the sin of compromise. Republican leaders try to convince the base of their party that this is really a conservative victory, while Democrats try to calm the progressive wing of their party without publicly praising the deal for fear of making the GOP’s whip count an even more uphill battle.
Biden basically admitted this in comments to reporters on Monday: “One of the things that I hear some of you guys saying is, ‘Why doesn’t Biden say what a good deal it is?’… You think that’s going to help me get it passed? No. That’s why you guys don’t bargain very well.”
Despite McCarthy’s success in passing the bill, there were still 71 Republicans who voted against it. These holdouts had been demanding his head and possible challenges to his leadership in the days leading up to the vote.
Progressive Democrats had been frustrated as well, with progressive caucus leader Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington saying the deal could have “harmful impacts for poor people” and environmental activists angry about a streamlining of the energy permitting process.
Once this bill is signed into law by Biden, it will cut $1.5 trillion from the deficit over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It will pass because House Republican leadership received cooperation from moderate Democrats in cobbling together the necessary votes to avoid a self-inflicted catastrophe.
This is a pattern, but it also contains lessons about how government works.
In 2011, many Republicans were enthralled with the Tea Party, and they seemed dead set against any raising of the debt ceiling. After months of negotiations between Republican leaders and then-President Barack Obama, the House passed an 11th hour bill by a 269-161 vote, despite opposition from Tea Party conservatives and liberal Democrats alike. In other words, the center held.
In 2013, conservatives, led by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, shut down the government to (unsuccessfully) force cuts to the Affordable Care Act – which was followed by another attempt to hold fiscal policy hostage to the debt ceiling.
This time, House Speaker John Boehner decided to bypass trying to appease the far right of his own party. He cobbled together a majority by relying on Democratic House votes to pass a clean lift of the debt ceiling. The final tally was 193 Democratic House votes and 28 Republican House votes – including Boehner and one of his top lieutenants, a representative from Bakersfield named Kevin McCarthy.
That was more evidence of what is called asymmetric polarization – essentially that the Republican Party has moved further right than the Democratic Party has moved left in our times. But it also demonstrated that moderates could set the agenda if they were willing to work across partisan lines.
A final example comes from 2018. Republicans had control of both Congress and the White House, but a government shutdown came because of a budget impasse with the debt ceiling looming in the distance. House Speaker Paul Ryan relied on the votes of 73 moderate House Democrats to pass the plan, while losing 67 of the most conservative Republicans.
For all our deep polarization, when America’s back is against the wall, Republican leadership has depended on centrist Democratic support to make government function – or at least to avoid self-made disaster.
These debt ceiling hostage debates only seem to happen in recent decades when a Democrat is president. Remember, the debt increased by $7 trillion under President Donald Trump – and the debt ceiling was raised three times during his tenure without a major fight.
And when Democrats controlled the House and Senate in the first two years of the Biden administration, there were more than 300 bipartisan bills passed – including big ticket items like the $1 trillion infrastructure bill and the CHIPS and Science Act.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the American economy is in strong shape with record low unemployment, a rise in real wages, 10 months of inflation reduction and, as our CNN colleague Fareed Zakaria notes, “The budget deficit, which was at 15.6 percent of GDP at the end of the Trump presidency, has dropped to 5.5 percent of GDP at the end of last year.” Add to that a further $1.5 trillion debt reduction and this deal should be seen as a win-win – despite the torturous route it took to get here.
McCarthy’s struggle to keep the most extreme members of his party in line is nothing new, though. He is the third consecutive Republican speaker to face the frustration of trying to corral the far-right into a responsible governing coalition. Boehner has slammed the “knuckle-draggers” in the GOP caucus – and worse. Ryan railed against what he called “the conservative media industrial complex” that is more interested in grandstanding than governing. Both men walked away from the speakership.
But the biggest lesson to learn is that whether folks on the far right and far left oppose a deal isn’t as important as whether a broad centrist coalition can come together to secure its passage because – in a time of crisis – they are willing to put country above party. It’s evidence that American government can work when the center holds.
This piece has been updated to reflect the latest news.