Self-described “pragmatic” Republicans expressed frustration with President Joe Biden’s refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling, even as they try to broker a compromise in order to stave off a possible crisis.

Members of the Main Street Caucus, who call themselves “pragmatic conservatives,” have inserted themselves into the debate over raising the nation’s debt limit, but they say the president’s unwillingness to talk about spending cuts as part of the talks is making their job more difficult.

“We have to have someone who’s willing to communicate and negotiate with us,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., chair of the Main Street Caucus. In a recent phone interview with the Deseret News, Johnson said progress on the issue has been stymied by Biden’s refusal to consider anything but a clean debt ceiling increase.

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While emphasizing their desire to find common ground, Johnson said the members of his caucus — like their GOP counterparts in the House Freedom Caucus — want budget cuts in return for an increase in the debt ceiling.

“I don’t know any pragmatic conservatives that would accept a clean debt ceiling increase,” he said.

The Main Street Caucus is a group of more than 50 Republican members of Congress who describe themselves as dedicated to “common sense governance.”

“We like to figure out a path forward,” caucus member and Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis said in a phone call with the Deseret News. “We like to find that spot where everybody feels like they’re getting what they want.”

Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.
Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. | Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Curtis, who joined the caucus in 2017, said it is made up of lawmakers who “get things done.” Still, he thinks the road to a resolution on the debt ceiling could be ugly.

“That’s my prediction. There’ll be some pain,” Curtis said. “But I believe, in the end, that we’ll find a path forward.”

Summer deadline

Last month, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen informed Congress that the U.S. government had reached its borrowing limit of $31.4 trillion and would pursue “extraordinary measures” to temporarily avoid a government shutdown. But the Treasury’s makeshift solution will only survive until the summer, when the nation could default on debt payments unless Congress moves to increase the debt limit. 

In response to Republican demands for budget cuts, Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have said they will only accept a “clean” — no-strings-attached — debt ceiling increase. 

House Republicans, under Speaker Kevin McCarthy, have said they won’t increase the debt ceiling unless Democratic leadership agrees to budget cuts, like they have in the past.

Johnson said the negotiating tactic is not new or uniquely Republican. 

“All we’re doing is embracing what has long been viewed as a really important time for America to talk about spending,” Johnson said. “There is a sense that $32 trillion in debt is a clear and present danger to the United States of America, and that we need to address it as our country has periodically in the past as part of debt ceiling negotiation.”

The Main Street Caucus has avoided disclosing specific details from its debt ceiling negotiations, preferring to brainstorm in private before final decisions are made.

“We are not going to default on the debt and we need to bring about some fiscal reforms,” Johnson said. “We are endeavoring in all ways to be responsible, reasonable and sensible in how we conduct our business on both of those goals.”

Some of the fiscal reforms being considered by the Republican Conference, Johnson said, include returning nondefense discretionary spending to pre-COVID-19 levels by scrapping COVID-era programs, and more ambitious proposals like saving $1.5 trillion, or balancing the budget, over a 10-year period. 

But Johnson said he agrees some things are not negotiable. 

“To be clear and explicit, Medicare and Social Security are off the table with regard to this debt ceiling negotiation,” The Dispatch reported Johnson saying earlier this month. 

A ‘crisis’ to get things done

“My experience is Washington, D.C., functions best in a crisis,” Curtis said. 

One such crisis, according to Curtis, was the 15-round speaker’s vote in January, where the Main Street Caucus found itself brokering between Republican factions to unify the conference around House Speaker McCarthy. 

“(There) was a lot of pain, but we got it done,” he said. 

The Main Street Caucus was formed in 2017 as an extension of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a nonprofit organization that has supported moderate Republicans since the mid-1990s. While the caucus was dissolved in 2019 over worries about how the outside organization was using funds, it was resurrected in 2021 by Nebraska Republican Rep. Don Bacon, whose centrist approach has led some to call him the “Joe Manchin of the House GOP,” referring to West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

But Johnson said that while members of the Main Street Caucus are open to cutting deals, they do so out of a desire to see conservative policies sent to Biden’s desk, not out of a “centrist” or “moderate” attitude.

He pointed out that he, and Main Street Caucus co-chair Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., score well above the average Republican on the Heritage Action Scorecard, a measure of “how conservative” the voting record is of congressmen and senators. 

“I think what distinguishes us from some other conservative caucuses is a real focus on results,” Johnson said. “In a closely divided Congress any small group of Republicans can grind almost any progress to a halt. What I think is more important though is to ask, ‘Where can we build the common ground to get things done together?’”

Just as with the speaker’s vote, McCarthy will need to cobble up the support of nearly his entire conference to have any chance at tying spending cuts to the debt ceiling increase. And if he appears unlikely to succeed, a small group of Republicans could side with Democrats to force a vote on a debt ceiling increase without McCarthy’s consent.

Though Curtis emphasizes the uncertainty of the debate and its outcome, he doesn’t foresee the Main Street Caucus, or any other House Republican caucus, crossing the aisle to end negotiations.

“I haven’t heard it talked about,” he said.