Elizabeth Warren, J.D. Vance team up on bank CEO crackdown

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s push to hit the executives of failed banks with sharper penalties is getting a big boost from an unexpected conservative partner — Sen. J.D. Vance.

Warren on Thursday unveiled Congress’s most politically viable response yet to the economy-shaking collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, with a bill backed by 12 other senators that would require the government to claw back executive compensation at large failed banks in a bid to deter excessive risk-taking.

Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Vance, an Ohio Republican, worked hand-in-hand to craft the latest iteration of the bill and assemble key co-sponsors — among them nearly half the lawmakers on the Senate panel responsible for potentially voting on the legislation.

“This is not just for show,” Warren said in an interview. “We actually want to make change, and we've got a bill where we can get this done.”

The compromise indicates that a thirst for banking industry accountability — one shared by President Joe Biden — persists on Capitol Hill nearly three months after the failure of SVB and other regional lenders. Warren's coalition is evidence that there may be sufficient political will to change policy.

With 11 of the Senate Banking Committee's 23 members on her bill, Warren said she has asked Chair Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to schedule a vote. A Brown spokesperson said holding failed bank executives accountable is a priority and that he’s working on the set of issues with committee members.

“My expectation is Sen. Brown will want to bring it up in the next couple of weeks in a markup, and then onto the Senate floor from there," Vance said in an interview. "I feel pretty optimistic about where things are.”

Warren's bill would require the FDIC to claw back from the executives of large banks compensation that they received over the three years preceding their institution's failure or FDIC resolution. The measure would cover banks with $10 billion or more in assets — carving out the smallest "community" banks — and apply to directors, officers, controlling shareholders and other high-level individuals involved in decision-making.

It comes as the FDIC and other financial regulators revive work on rules that would impose new restrictions on executive pay to curb unbridled risk-taking.

Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri is the lead Republican on Warren's proposal, having signed on to an earlier version that she circulated in March with Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.).

Warren turned to Vance as she sought to build GOP support on the Banking Committee where they both serve. Vance said Warren approached him after he publicly criticized how SVB was run.

Vance — a venture capitalist and author — helped address Republican concerns about the scope of Warren's original plan. The carve-out for small banks was one of the key negotiating points.

In addition to Vance, Senate Banking Republican Sens. Katie Britt of Alabama and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota have signed on to the bill.

"J.D. and I went back and forth on the details about how to do this," Warren said. "Lots of texting late at night and early in the morning and some weekend phone calls. But we got the pieces right. And once we did, we were able to talk with others — both Republicans and Democrats — to begin to build some momentum around it."

Warren's Democratic co-sponsors on the Senate Banking Committee, in addition to Cortez Masto, include Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Mark Warner of Virginia, Tina Smith of Minnesota, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

"People had different perspectives on how to look at it, but ultimately I ended up with a great set of partners here who care about not letting these corporate executives enrich themselves and push the risks off onto everyone else," Warren said.

It’s unclear to what extent the idea will gain traction in the GOP-led House. Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri, a senior Republican on the Financial Services Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that executives at failed banks already face enough punishment because they lose their jobs. She said lawmakers should focus on protecting depositors.

“The question in the House is always one of priority,” Vance said. “My hope is by late summer, next fall, we can get the House to take this up.”

Eleanor Mueller and Victoria Guida contributed reporting.

Inside the debt ceiling vote with GOP Whip Tom Emmer

In this episode of Deep Dive, Playbook co-author Rachael Bade joins House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) and Chief Deputy Whip Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) just hours before final passage of the debt ceiling bill they shepherded through the House.

This is the behind the scenes story from inside the Republican whip's office of how Kevin McCarthy's leadership team convinced House Republicans to raise the debt ceiling for two years and embrace his agreement with President Joe Biden, which many on the right decried as a betrayal of the base. It's a story of how Emmer and Reschenthaler pulled together a divided and fractious conference, dodging a ballooning effort to oust McCarthy from the gavel, and ultimately putting the ball back in the Democrats' court.

Why the left held its fire on no-win debt deal

Elizabeth Warren doesn’t like much at all about the deal to raise the debt ceiling. The only reason she might vote for it is hardly an endorsement: default would be worse.

“We have to weigh the consequences of default,” the progressive Massachusetts senator said in an interview, “against the pain that Republicans are trying to impose on hungry Americans, students, our climate and the Republicans' constant enthusiasm for protecting billionaire tax cheats.”

Warren’s ambivalence about a deal to raise the debt ceiling into early 2025, which Democrats never even wanted to negotiate, is coursing through the party’s left flank. Progressives are facing a no-win choice of voting against raising the debt ceiling or voting for some spending constraints and avoiding default. Even as they complain, many say that President Joe Biden got the best deal he could.

And Warren’s not the only one weighing whether the deal is better than the alternative. Even some liberals who are planning to vote against the bill acknowledge it's better than default. Typically, it’s just Republicans who are hard to woo on lifting the debt ceiling — but this time Democrats are also agonizing over what to do.

Still, it’s a more positive sentiment than Biden and Democratic leaders faced two weeks ago, when Warren and dozens of other progressives were calling for the president to invoke the 14th Amendment rather than accede to Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s demands. The speaker got modest budget caps and new benefit restrictions, but Democrats likely would have had to fight those battles in the fall anyway, when Congress negotiates its annual spending bill.

“This is the weirdest legislation that anybody has ever been asked to vote on since I got here,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). “Nobody seems to support all of it. Everyone has problems with parts of it. But the macro alternative is absolutely indigestible.”

With a Democratic president in office, the relatively low-key opposition on the left reflects a subdued mood among progressives. Few Democrats want to blame Biden for negotiating a bad deal, which would only accelerate party infighting ahead of a possible rematch between him and former President Donald Trump.

And many liberal Democrats realize that in a divided government, the big ideas of 2021 and 2022 are no longer achievable. Instead, they must protect the legislative achievements they already passed.

“Let’s keep the focus where it should be, which is the hostage-taking Republicans,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who opposed the legislation. “We are not voting against the president. We are not voting for default. We are voting for working people and poor people across this country who should have never been taken hostage.”

On the face of it, this bill is a nightmare for progressives: It restricts non-defense spending, greenlights a fossil fuel project, ends the pause on student loan payments and imposes work requirements on some people receiving SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps.

Thankfully for Biden and congressional leaders, many on the left could vote no and the deal would still succeed. What’s more, some progressives were quick to dispense with the uncertainty altogether.

“Not a hard call,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) of his support.

The fact that the debt deal hasn’t inspired a liberal revolt ahead of the 2024 presidential election is a victory for Biden — and it reflects the careful relationship he’s built with progressives since the 2020 primary, when he sought to unify the party in a way that Hillary Clinton had failed to four years earlier.

The debt agreement passed the House 314-117 Wednesday night, with more Democrats supporting it than Republicans.

The strange-bedfellows partnership between the dealmaking president and progressive lawmakers has continued while he’s been in office, with Biden linking arms with the left as he sought to pass party-line legislation like $1.9 trillion in Covid aid and Democrats' huge climate, health care and tax law. So when Biden undercut his party’s “no negotiations” stance on the debt ceiling, there was some earned goodwill he might not have had 10 years ago, during his tenure as vice president.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) will oppose the debt bill, and many members of Jayapal's caucus voted against it. But she and other progressive leaders didn’t whip members against it. Meanwhile, progressive organizations are mixed, with some like Our Revolution and the Working Families Party urging members to oppose the bill, while others such as Indivisible aren’t actively lobbying their allies on the Hill.

Even some liberal “no” votes still want the debt package to pass; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said that while she opposes the deal, “we're going to work as a team to make sure that we prevent default.”

“The Democrats should supply the votes needed to get to 218, but we don't have to supply any more than that. … We should be clear that this is not a bill that reflects fundamentally Democratic values,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.).

Senate progressives may land differently from their House counterparts. House Democrats could afford to lose more votes on a deal negotiated by the Republican leadership, while in the Senate, leaders are hoping they can keep down the defectors.

“People are prepared with some disappointment to support it,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “The looming default is a compelling force.”

Several progressives said they have been in constant communication with the White House, talking with Biden counselor Steve Ricchetti, climate adviser John Podesta, chief of staff Jeff Zients and economic chief Lael Brainard, among others. They said the message from Biden’s team to the left is, effectively, that the debt deal could have been much worse.

There was an understanding from the White House that “some will vote no,” said Khanna. And Jayapal asserted the White House actually appreciated the public pushback from progressives because it helped give Biden more leverage.

“I don’t think gritting of teeth is even the right description,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a top Biden ally, when asked how he'd characterize Senate Democrats with reservations about the deal. “As members of my caucus become clearer on the actual contours of the final agreement, the number of votes will solidify.”

Even as they have criticized the deal, some liberals in Congress said they appreciated, if begrudgingly, that the president and his aides managed to remove many of the GOP’s most conservative demands from consideration. The alternative, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said, “would have just been so hurtful to millions upon millions of people. But it also doesn't mean that we landed in the right place either.” Bush opposes the deal.

So as Warren deliberates how she herself will vote, her mind is already on how to avoid this next time.

“Democrats need to make it a top priority just to get rid of this debt ceiling. The Republicans have shown us enough times now how they plan to use it,” she said. “And if we don't learn from that, shame on us.”

Supreme Court’s expansion of gun rights could be good news for Hunter Biden

Hunter Biden could soon find himself in a surprising position: at the cutting edge of the fight to strengthen the Second Amendment.

The president’s son is the target of a Justice Department investigation scrutinizing his purchase of a gun in 2018 — a time when he has said he was regularly using crack cocaine. Federal law bans drug users from owning guns.

But the constitutionality of that law — like many other provisions restricting gun ownership — is newly in question after a precedent-rocking decision the Supreme Court handed down almost a year ago.

His lawyers have already told Justice Department officials that, if their client is charged with the gun crime, they will challenge the law under the Second Amendment, according to a person familiar with the private discussions granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly. That could turn a case that is already fraught with political consequences into a high-profile showdown over the right to bear arms.

The dispute would come as the White House fights to tighten gun laws. And it could put conservative gun-rights enthusiasts, who typically criticize the Biden family, in unusual alignment with the president’s son.

Federal prosecutors are expected to soon finalize the Hunter Biden investigation. David Weiss, the U.S. attorney for Delaware who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, is leading the probe. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in May that Weiss is “capable of making any decisions that he feels are appropriate,” and that he won’t face political pressure. Weiss is widely reported to be examining potential tax crimes related to undeclared income, as well as Hunter Biden’s purchase of a handgun in October 2018.

When he bought the gun, Biden filled out a federal form on which he allegedly avowed that he was not “an unlawful user of, or addicted to” any “controlled substance,” Washington Post reported","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/10/06/hunter-biden-tax-gun-charges/","_id":"00000188-767b-de25-afee-f6ffeee90000","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000188-767b-de25-afee-f6ffeee90001","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">the Washington Post reported. But according to Biden’s 2021 memoir, he frequently used crack cocaine at the time.

“I was smoking crack every 15 minutes,” he wrote.

A lawyer for Hunter Biden declined to comment for this article. A White House spokesperson declined to comment as well, citing the fact that the president’s son is a private citizen and that the Justice Department probe is ongoing.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits unlawful drug users from possessing firearms. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says this ban applies to people who have admitted to using illegal drugs in the 12 months before buying a gun. Violators can receive up to 15 years in prison.

But the provision, long considered an unassailable gun restriction, now faces challenges. Last June, the Supreme Court undid decades of lower-court jurisprudence about the Second Amendment. In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/20-843_7j80.pdf","_id":"00000188-767b-de25-afee-f6ffeeea0002","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000188-767b-de25-afee-f6ffeeea0003","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}">New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, the court’s six-justice conservative majority ruled that contemporary gun restrictions must be consistent with those of the founding era.

This new constitutional test presents a massive opening for people working to loosen gun restrictions, since firearm laws in America’s founding era were, in some ways, extremely permissive. The president, meanwhile, called the ruling deeply troubling and said it “contradicts both common sense and the Constitution.”

Since Bruen, most courts have still upheld the law banning drug users from owning guns, according to Jeff Welty, a professor at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina who closely tracks gun cases. But several have ruled against it.

“A majority isn’t everybody,” Welty said. “And given how unsettled the law is in this area, I think anyone charged with a violation of that statute would give serious consideration to raising the Second Amendment as a defense.”

Just a week after Bruen was released, a federal district judge in Utah ruled that the prohibition on drug users owning guns was unconstitutional because of its vagueness. Judge Jill Parrish noted that the statute itself doesn’t define the word “user” and also doesn’t say how the timing of people’s drug use affects their right to own guns. Parrish’s ruling — which the government has appealed — was based on the Fifth Amendment, not the Second, so it did not cite the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision. But Bruen only strengthens challenges to the drug-user prohibition.

Just ask Judge Patrick Wyrick, a district judge in Oklahoma who ruled in February that the government could not use the statute to prosecute a defendant who was caught with a gun and had marijuana in his car. In an opinion that relied heavily on Bruen, Wyrick wrote that barring marijuana users from possessing guns “is inconsistent with the Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.” He rejected the government’s attempts to defend the statute’s constitutionality, including the government’s citations to 19th century laws that restricted people from using firearms while drunk.

And in Texas in April, a district judge also ruled against the constitutionality of the law. That case involved charges against a woman who had both marijuana and psilocybin — a psychedelic — in her home. Judge Kathleen Cardone concluded that the ban was inconsistent with the Second Amendment and with America’s early history of gun regulation. The Justice Department has appealed the Oklahoma and Texas cases.

Other judges disagree. In another case from Texas, Judge Alan Albright threw out a Second Amendment challenge to the statute. Albright noted that Bruen said the Second Amendment only protects the gun rights of law-abiding citizens.

And in Mississippi, Judge Louis Guirola Jr. rejected a defendant’s effort to get his conviction under the statute tossed out. “[A]nalogous statutes which purport to disarm persons considered a risk to society — whether felons or alcoholics — were known to the American legal tradition,” Guirola wrote. The defendant has appealed.

Meanwhile, another challenge to the drug-users prohibition is pending close to home for Hunter Biden. In Pennsylvania, defendant Erik Harris was charged under the statute, and was also charged with lying on the federal form when he purchased his gun (a separate crime that carries a maximum of five years in prison). Harris pleaded guilty, but reserved his right to appeal the constitutionality of the charges. His appeal is before the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals — a key court for Hunter Biden because it oversees Delaware, too.

The appellate panel in Harris’ case appears to be waiting to rule until the 3rd Circuit resolves another major Second Amendment case: Range v. Attorney General, a lawsuit challenging the law banning felons from possessing guns.

Second Amendment advocates haven’t reached a consensus on whether to support gun rights for people who use hard drugs, according to Joseph Greenlee, the director of constitutional studies at the pro-Second Amendment Firearms Policy Coalition. Greenlee, whose group argued on the plaintiff’s side in Range v. Attorney General, said his group believes that people who use marijuana shouldn’t be banned from buying guns.

“We oppose marijuana-based firearm prohibitions because we’ve seen enough evidence provided by the government to determine that it’s insufficient to justify such a ban,” he told POLITICO. “As far as other substance-based prohibitions go, we think the government should be required to demonstrate that users of that substance are especially dangerous.”

Greenlee added that his organization hasn’t yet taken a position on whether or not the Constitution allows the government to bar people who use hard drugs from possessing guns.

“If the government provided insufficient evidence to justify a substance-based ban, I wouldn’t say anything was out of the question,” he added.

Aidan Johnston, the director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America, said that his group opposes the ban on drug users owning guns.

“Whatever merit one might imagine on a ban on users of controlled substances buying guns, if we don’t trust people to buy weapons why are we trusting them in society?” he said.

Others are keeping the issue at arms’ distance. That includes Larry Keane, who heads the gun industry trade association National Shooting Sports Foundation. His group has filed amicus briefs weighing in on a variety of Second Amendment cases. But not when it comes to hard drugs.

“We’re not working to get the law changed, at all,” he said. “It’s not on our radar at all.”

Given the conflicting rulings in the lower courts, the Supreme Court may one day have to resolve the statute’s constitutionality — and it’s not obvious how the court’s conservative majority would view the issue. Jacob Charles, a professor at Pepperdine’s Caruso School of Law who studies gun laws, said that Justice Samuel Alito could be particularly ambivalent.

“I could see him going either way,” Charles said, “obviously in favor of gun rights, but also in favor of strong law enforcement.”

Andrew Willinger, the head of the Duke Center for Firearms Law, said he would be surprised to see the statute thrown out as a whole.

“I personally doubt that that prohibition would fall entirely,” he said.

A U.S. ambassador calls out South Africa on Russia, and gets burned

The Biden administration is furious with its ambassador to South Africa and scrambling to salvage relations with the country after the envoy alleged that Pretoria sent a ship filled with weapons to Russia as it wages war on Ukraine.

The ambassador, Reuben Brigety, made the claim three weeks ago in a press briefing, saying he’d “bet my life” on it. He added that South Africa was engaging in “outrageous” anti-Americanism and questioned its claim to be neutral among the world powers.

It was a shocking assertion by an American official against a country that the United States has been trying to court in the global effort to isolate Russia.

Brigety’s actions thrilled some observers who say the U.S. needs to be more honest about a South African drift toward Moscow; his defenders include top U.S. senators. But multiple U.S. officials told POLITICO that Brigety’s accusations were overstated and he may have damaged American interests in the long run.

Publicly, the administration has tried to walk a fine line in its response between calming the South Africans and not appearing to abandon its ambassador. State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel has said in daily press briefings that the United States had expressed concerns about the ship to the South Africans but valued its relationship with the country and declined to directly discuss the ambassador’s comments.

Still, U.S. officials made clear in conversations with POLITICO that they were uncomfortable with Brigety’s actions and the nature of his assertions.

Brigety did not have permission from higher-ups to say what he said, two former U.S. officials and a current U.S. official familiar with the discussions said. He also overstated what the U.S. definitively knows, according to the current official and a fourth person — a senior Biden administration official.

“The things we have said publicly we are ready to put the credibility of the U.S. government behind. What he said was far beyond that,” the senior Biden administration official said when pressed on the intelligence.

The incident has shed light on the fraught U.S. effort to influence countries where Russia and China have made inroads, a competition turbocharged by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

South Africa is a key player among countries being wooed because it is “definitely the de facto leader of sub-Saharan Africa,” a fifth person, a Biden administration official familiar with the issue said. “I don’t think we ’need’ them. But it’s also not smart to make them an enemy.”

The official, and others interviewed for this story, were granted anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic issues.

The tension began ramping up last fall when a Russian cargo vessel called the Lady R headed toward South Africa’s Simon’s Town naval base. Washington had asked Pretoria to block the ship, which was under U.S. economic sanctions, but South Africa allowed it to furtively dock from Dec. 6-8.

South African officials initially indicated the ship had docked to deliver ammunition for the country’s military forces — fulfilling an old order. But that didn’t dispel suspicions.

In February, the New York Times reported that “a U.S. official in South Africa said the American government believed that munitions and rocket propellant that Russia could use in the Ukraine war may have been loaded onto the Russian tanker.”

On May 11, Brigety tersely made similar claims at a news conference in Pretoria.

“The arming of Russia by South Africa with the vessel that landed in Simon’s Town is fundamentally unacceptable,” Brigety said. “We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy of that assertion.”

South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, immediately called in and reprimanded Brigety. The South African government claimed Brigety apologized while excoriating him for supposedly violating diplomatic protocol, but it also said it was investigating his claims. Brigety said simply via tweet that he was glad to “correct any misimpressions” left by his remarks.

State Department and the National Security Council spokespeople would not answer detailed questions about the incident from POLITICO and declined to make Brigety available for comment. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Pandor after the incident, then issued a two-sentence readout that didn’t mention Brigety’s claims.

The incident is still reverberating throughout South Africa, Washington and the broader Africa watcher community. 

In part that’s because Brigety has highlighted ties between South Africa and Russia that the Biden administration prefers not to discuss in public.

“It’s the emperor has no clothes, and Reuben has played the role of the little boy who said, who shouted out loud, what people refuse to see with their own eyes,” said a former U.S. diplomat who has worked closely with Brigety.

Among developing countries that have tried to keep good ties with both Washington and Moscow amid the Ukraine war, South Africa has unique characteristics. Many of its leaders have longstanding connections to Russia dating to the Soviet era. And they have not forgotten that the Soviet Union backed the anti-apartheid movement long before the United States did. That means many South African officials approach Americans with a pervasive sense of distrust.

After first condemning Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, South Africa abstained from two major United Nations General Assembly votes criticizing Russia for the war. South Africa this year hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and participated in naval exercises with Russia and China. Days after Brigety’s news conference, South Africa’s army chief visited Moscow in what Pretoria said was a pre-planned trip.

South African officials have also wavered on whether they would carry out an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court targeting Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who is due to visit South Africa this summer for a summit of the BRICS group of emerging economies — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Top U.S. officials are in regular conversations with South African officials; Blinken stopped by last August. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the White House last September.

But American lawmakers are increasingly incensed that the U.S. isn’t demanding more from Pretoria. A House resolution introduced in February slammed the naval exercises and called for a review of the U.S.-South Africa relationship.

Brigety’s defendersinclude the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Idaho’s Jim Risch, and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who said he traveled to South Africa as part of a bipartisan delegation following the Lady R’s visit.

Coons said Brigety briefed the lawmakers in that delegation, who were impressed with the ambassador and what he shared, though Coons declined to provide details.

“If there’s been an action by South Africa to provide arms to Russia during this conflict, that is a serious issue and must be dealt with seriously,” Coons said. “I have confidence that Ambassador Brigety is professional, capable, and is representing the United States well in a difficult moment in the U.S.-South Africa relationship.”

South Africa appears to be feeling some of the pressure.

Days before Brigety’s news conference, a South African government delegation visited Washington to forestall any potential effort to kick their country out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act program, a trade initiative.

They spent time with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). In a statement referring to the Lady R, released after Brigety’s news conference, the senator said the visitors assured him they “were taking seriously the evidence we have presented regarding transfers of weapons and ammunition to Russia.”

Since Brigety spoke out, South African officials have sent mixed messages about the status of an investigation. At times, they’ve said they have no evidence of an arms transfer onto the Lady R, or at least none supporting a government role.

A South African diplomat said his government began investigating the Lady R case prior to Brigety’s news conference. On Sunday, Ramaphosa said he has appointed an independent panel to pursue an inquiry.

“Our president and government as a whole never took this matter lightly,” the South African diplomat said.

Many of Brigety’s peers call him an accomplished, intelligent man who usually follows the rules. He previously was America’s ambassador to the African Union and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.

Friends suspect Brigety spoke up out of sheer frustration with his host country.

He had accompanied the South African delegation to Washington, and interactions with those officials might have affected his thinking. At the news conference, he read what he described as “outrageous” passages from an ANC document that seemed to blame the United States for the war in Ukraine — suggesting he had prepped for the occasion.

Spokespeople for Brigety declined multiple requests for interviews and referred inquiries to the State Department press shop in D.C.

Among many Americans who’ve dealt with South Africa, there’s a sense that the country wants to benefit from U.S. ties while undermining U.S. interests; that South Africa’s leaders are hypocritical when they harp on respect for sovereignty but say nothing when Russia violates Ukraine’s; that they excessively emphasize diplomatic protocol as a way to obfuscate; and that rampant corruption is affecting their decisions.

There’s rarely any appreciation for what America has done for South Africa, including helping it battle HIV/AIDS, former U.S. diplomats and officials said. Instead, South Africa frequently opposes the United States in forums such as the United Nations.

“Any chance they get to poke the U.S. in the eye they will do it,” said Tibor Nagy, a former assistant secretary of State for African affairs.

Still, Brigety spoke in definitive terms about an intelligence matter, even though U.S. intelligence is rarely definitive. His implication that South Africa’s government was behind the alleged arms transfer may be impossible to prove, not least because the country’s Byzantine bureaucracy has many fiefdoms.

That said, the United States could penalize South Africa simply for letting the sanctioned ship dock, but it has yet to make such a move.

Brigety’s comments had immediate consequences for ordinary South Africans: The value of the country’s currency dipped, damaging the economy.

The United States is one of South Africa’s largest trading partners — much bigger than Russia. But even America’s ability to influence South Africa through trade is limited because Pretoria has successfully maintained economic relations with other countries including China.

Sanusha Naidu, a foreign affairs analyst based in Cape Town, argued that’s the way it should stay.

“Why can’t we have a choice where we enjoy a nice relationship with the U.S. on certain levels within our interest,” Naidu said, “and then we also enjoy certain levels of relationship with China and Russia that fits our interest — [when] everybody actually comes out with a positive outcome?”

Opinion | The DeSantis Strategy to Take Down Trump

Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a doctored version of Ron DeSantis’ pre-announcement video the other day, with his father tackling the Florida governor backstage, WWE-style.

The combative DeSantis aide Christina Pushaw replied, “Your dad could not even tackle the 110 lb. Keebler Elf known as Anthony Fauci.”

It’s difficult to remember the last time anyone in Republican politics who has credibility with the conservative base hitting back so hard at Trump Jr., a MAGA rock star.

During the long interlude when the Florida governor was stuck in an in-between state — presumed a presidential candidate, but not formally one — there were doubts about whether he’d be willing to take on Trump.

The last week has shown that they were unfounded. Pushaw has been a relentless combatant against pro-Trump Twitter accounts, memes and arguments. The DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down has been similarly bellicose. And DeSantis himself has been unafraid to draw contrasts with Trump in interviews and speeches.

It all adds up to the most aggressive anti-Trump advocacy from someone who wants and expects to have a future in Republican politics since 2016. This isn’t Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger, fierce Trump critics who clearly were buying one-way tickets to an early retirement from Congress, with perhaps the sweetener of a CNN contract. DeSantis is making a bid, not to howl into the wilderness about Trump, but to take the party from him.

Now, since that’s the end in mind, DeSantis’ case is carefully circumscribed. He is not making a comprehensive argument against Trump as unfit to serve. Rather, DeSantis wants to get to his right on key issues and convince Republicans sympathetic to Trump and to his politics that the former president failed to deliver and isn’t reliable.

A key element of the DeSantis approach is to counterpunch

Trump would probably be best served by consistently hitting DeSantis as an alleged tool of the establishment, whose successes have come on the inherently favorable terrain of Florida. Since Trump can’t help himself, though, he’s resorting to indiscriminate fire.

His charge that former Gov. Andrew Cuomo did a better job on Covid than DeSantis doesn’t get him anything. It associates him with a Republican villain (the New York Democrat has hailed Trump’s belated endorsement), and plays into the hands of the DeSantis camp that argues Trump doesn’t regret the lockdowns and would do them again.

Other Trump attacks — criticizing DeSantis for his six-week abortion ban in Florida, his ongoing fight with Disney and his past support for entitlement reform — have created the opening for DeSantis to say that Trump is hitting him from the left and is no longer the Trump everyone remembers from 2015-2016. More specifically, DeSantis has leveraged attacks on his vote against an omnibus bill in Congress to denounce all the money Trump spent as president. And he’s used his vote against an immigration bill to remind people how Trump supported legislation that provided legal status for so-called Dreamers.

If DeSantis is trying to make a good defense the best offense on those issues, he’s gone out of his way to pick a fight on the criminal justice reform that Trump signed into law as president, the First Step Act. Crime is a central concern of Republican primary voters, and Trump’s support of an off-brand, bipartisan measure that released some prisoners early is a clear vulnerability.

DeSantis is also trying to elevate competent governance to more than simply a process issue and give it ideological salience by talking of how Trump couldn’t follow through on key priorities. The border wall obviously never got built, and Never Back Down tweeted a thread blaming Trump for getting played by “the swamp.” When Trump this week pledged to end birthright citizenship with an executive order on Day One — which would instantly get blocked by the courts if he tried it — Never Back Down pointed out he’d repeatedly promised to do the same thing as president while never actually doing it.

The trickiest issue for DeSantis may be how to talk about the 2020 election. Letting Trump get away with his insistence it was stolen is to concede that he’s a supposed two-time winner of national elections, making it impossible to argue he’s the chief reason that the GOP has developed, in the DeSantis phrase, a “culture of losing.” On the other hand, directly contradicting Trump’s false claim risks alienating Republicans who have bought some version of the Trump lie.

DeSantis showed how he thinks he can handle the question in a notable post-launch interview with Ben Shapiro. He implicitly accepted the idea that the election was “rigged,” an amorphous term adopted by some Trump supporters to signify that the election was unfair but not necessarily stolen.

DeSantis cited changes in election procedures in 2020, but blamed Covid alarmism promoted by Fauci — who worked for Trump — for justifying those changes. He added that Trump was foolish and negligent in urging people not to vote by mail and not having better organizations in states with extensive mail-in voting and “ballot harvesting.” In other words, Trump was at fault for his poor management of his own administration and his shortsighted tactical choices.

DeSantis added that if he’s the GOP nominee, “I’m not going to make excuses,” and he’ll get it done and be inaugurated in January 2025. Translation: Trump lost, and I won’t.

Now, the DeSantis case against Trump isn’t full-throated. It doesn’t address his character, his ongoing and growing legal difficulties, or his abysmal conduct after the November 2020 election, including Jan. 6. It is a narrowly tailored message meant for an audience that will have a decisive influence on the 2024 nomination battle — Republicans who are fond of Trump, appreciate what he did as president, and instinctively feel defensive of him when attacked, but are open to another candidate. Without robust support from this group of voters, DeSantis isn’t going to win.

It may be that, despite what seems possible at the moment, Republicans could be swayed by a more robust anti-Trump argument, or that the balance DeSantis is trying to strike isn’t sustainable in the rough-and-tumble of the campaign. Certainly, how DeSantis eventually takes the fight to Trump on a debate stage will matter enormously.

All that said, in the early days, nothing in how DeSantis and his team are handling themselves indicate fear of battling with Trump. At a press gaggle in Iowa on Tuesday, DeSantis asked of Trump’s silence on the debt ceiling deal: “Are you leading from the front, or are you waiting for polls to tell you what position to take?” In a statement on Memorial Day, Never Back Down quoted the son of a man killed in the Sept. 11 attacks who slammed Trump for, through his support of the Saudi-funded LIV tournament, “lining the pockets [of] a country who stands accused in a trial as we speak … of aiding and abetting and sponsoring the 9/11 terror attacks.”

For the longest time, the way to thrive in Republican politics was to back Donald Trump, or at least step around him. That option isn’t available to Ron DeSantis, and his nascent campaign obviously realizes it.

Trump adds some campaign muscle to early state operations

Donald Trump has tapped a veteran Republican operative to oversee his campaign’s day-to-day operations in Iowa and New Hampshire, a move that comes as he wages an intensifying battle with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the two early nominating states.

Eric Hollander will serve as the campaign's national field director, a post that will task him with spearheading operations in those two states. Hollander most recently oversaw Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron's winning primary campaign. Hollander also helped to spearhead the successful 2022 campaign of Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and managed the 2018 reelection bid for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Trump taped an interview with a Des Moines radio station on Wednesday and is set to campaign in Iowa this week. On Thursday, he will appear at the Westside Conservative Breakfast and at a town hall hosted by Fox News personality Sean Hannity.

DeSantis, meanwhile, is embarking on a two-day swing through the state, which has taken him to Des Moines, Sioux City, Pella and Cedar Rapids.

The two campaigns are gearing up for a tough race in Iowa. Trump's campaign says it has a team of in-state volunteers who have knocked on the doors of 35,000 past Iowa caucus-goers. DeSantis' campaign, meanwhile, has hired Sophie Crowell — who served as campaign manager for Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) — to oversee its Iowa efforts.

DeSantis is also relying heavily on an allied super PAC, Never Back Down, to turn out supporters. The organization — which says that it has knocked on 50,000 doors — is staffed by a number of veterans of Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. Cruz narrowly defeated Trump in the Iowa caucus that year, though he ended up losing the nomination.

Trump, however, is running what is widely seen as a more professional operation this time around. Unlike 2016, the former president has surrounded himself with a team of seasoned operatives, which includes campaign leaders Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita.

Biden tried an ice-then-court strategy with House Dems. It worked.

For 11 days this spring, President Joe Biden iced out his Democratic allies as he negotiated with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy over raising the nation’s debt limit.

With Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries at the table, Biden was convinced the talks had grown too unwieldy. The White House wanted to narrow the conversation, leaving other Democrats to steam.

Progressives openly criticized Biden. Allies, such as Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford, vented that the White House needed to do more to communicate about Republican demands. Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal warned of backlash in the streets if Biden gave in to Republicans.

After the deal was announced Saturday night, his team went into overdrive to ensure that the frustration they’d sparked from within their party didn’t metastasize into a full blown revolt. Administration officials placed over 100 one-on-one calls with House Democrats. They held wonky virtual meetings over the negotiation details and took pointed questions on the policy they’d agreed to.

The ice-then-court strategy worked. On Wednesday evening, 165 House Democratic voted for the Biden-McCarthy bill, more than the 149 House Republicans who supported the measure. Many of those Democrats who had voiced opposition to the bill praised the White House for negotiating what they still consider to be a terrible piece of legislation and, ultimately, supported it.

It was a major victory for Biden, not just preventing an economic calamity that could have come with a debt ceiling breach but proving — five months into a divided government — that the White House and House Democrats have persevered through what seemed, at times, like a rocky relationship.

“It's the most incredible thing,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said of the president, a close ally who Biden explicitly asked to help sell the bill in one of their regular conservations throughout the process. “I don't know if he's that lucky or that skillful. Whatever it is, it's damn sure working.”

Not all Democrats left the process happy. Progressives, in particular, remained upset that the president backtracked on his pledge to not negotiate around the debt ceiling at all. But when it became clear that Republicans would not support a “clean” lift of the debt ceiling, Democrats said they felt a collective sense of being in the trenches.

That gave Biden some space to engage in negotiations. Helping matters was that the end deal exceeded expectations that the House Republicans had set after having successfully passed their own, far more conservative version of a debt ceiling hike in late April.

“We were operating with hostage takers who were attempting to take no prisoners. And I think Joe Biden, if I might say, did a miraculous and important job of holding off the tsunami,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who supported the bill. “We were in a bloody war. We were apt to get mutilated. We didn't. We came out, we’re standing.”

The White House’s Hill outreach kicked off shortly after the deal with McCarthy was announced Saturday evening. Several White House officials — including chief of staff Jeff Zients, top adviser Steve Ricchetti, Office of Management and Budget director Shalanda Young, and legislative affairs director Louisa Terrell, among others — spent the bulk of their Memorial Day weekend on the phone with individual House Democrats. That was followed by six hours of policy-oriented virtual meetings with lawmakers and in-person appearances at caucus meetings by senior officials, according to White House officials granted anonymity to describe the behind-the-scenes blitz.

Once-skeptical Democrats took particular solace in the inclusion of Young, a former House staffer beloved throughout the caucus, in the negotiating room. Not part of the tight circle of longtime Biden advisers, she was viewed as both a credible messenger and trusted negotiator. Jeffries told reporters that she received a standing ovation during Wednesday’s caucus meeting even before she started to speak.

But it wasn’t just the quality of the messenger that mattered to House Democrats. It was the extensiveness of the briefings.

“The White House did something very smart: They spent two days with members, virtually, three hours a day for two days explaining, answering questions, responding,” Clyburn said, adding that he hadn’t seen that level of engagement on an issue since he was elected to Congress in 1993. “I think that's what made the difference.”

Jeffries himself praised the White House’s communication with the Hill and White House officials say they kept in touch with leadership through the process. The full-bore outreach was needed after House Democrats showed initial displeasure at not being briefed about the deal immediately after it was announced Saturday. The White House also knew that Democrats would be called upon to deliver at least some votes for final passage in the House and couldn’t risk further revolt.

“I’ve been through about seven hours of briefings,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee. “We’ve had a pretty good idea of what’s in the bill.”

The debt ceiling battle was the first main test of how Biden would operate as president in a divided government. It came amid a bumpy transition from Democratic to Republican control — along with the handoff of power from longtime Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Jeffries. Many House Democrats have privately expressed frustration that the White House has not been more communicative about its priorities or taken clearer stances on controversial GOP bills. There is a feeling among House Democrats that the White House pays more attention to the Senate, which remains in Democratic hands and is responsible for approving its nominees.

While the experience over the debt bill mended some of those worries, there is still plenty of frustration.

Horsford went public with his criticism of how the White House handled the bill last week — and reiterated his reproach during a virtual meeting with top White House aides on Sunday.

He said he spoke with administration officials about “ways that we can improve the outreach, the communication and the engagement, particularly on the communities who helped deliver the wins that produced the Biden-Harris administration,” adding that they have been “very receptive.”

The secrecy surrounding the negotiations left a sour taste for some progressives as well, including Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, who bristled at being shut out of discussions around energy permitting.

“The whole presence of the Democratic caucus, that wasn’t there,” Grijalva said, adding that he got the equivalent of a shrug from the White House in response to his concerns.

“This is the situation we find ourselves in,” Grijalva said when asked to characterize the response from Biden aides.

The lingering frustration prompted Jayapal to seek a meeting with the White House following the debt ceiling vote, emphasizing the need to talk through Biden's communication strategy even as she praised the president for minimizing the concessions in the deal.

Jayapal voted against the bill’s passage. But it was precisely because the measure was able to pass with a mix of Republican and Democratic votes that a large number of progressives felt comfortable opposing it.

“Since we all expect this deal is gonna get done, then I think it's appropriate for a significant number of progressives to push back” against many of its provisions, said Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas), the Progressive Caucus whip.

The centrist New Democrat Coalition, a group that the White House knew early on would be needed for many of the party’s votes, leveraged that position to advocate for two key policies: permitting reform and funding veterans’ health programs. They said that working with the White House — including giving them their policy positions — paid off, both in keeping lines of communication open and in shaping the legislative product.

“We were able to change the negotiations and get some significant wins for veterans, namely, getting the funding for the toxic exposure fund — the PACT Act — into mandatory funding. That's huge,” said the Coalition chair, Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.).

The nearly 100-member coalition, in turn, came out early in support of the bill, swiftly boosting the measure's whip count and lending a degree of legitimacy to the final product in Democratic circles.

In dozens of private briefings with lawmakers and allies over the last three days, senior White House aides offered variations on the same argument: Compare the compromise bill to what Republicans initially demanded back in April, and then decide which side got the better end of the deal.

"I don’t want to overstate it; it’s still going to be painful," Michael Linden, an OMB aide involved in the negotiations, told outside allies during a private Tuesday call, according to audio obtained by POLITICO. "But it is a much, much, much improved situation from where the Republicans started."

Biden officials put special effort into selling Democrats on work requirement provisions for government food assistance programs, insisting that they’d lessened the blow by expanding access to those programs for veterans and the homeless. Still, those provisions sparked deep concern among large blocs of progressives and Black lawmakers.

Even Clyburn had reservations, saying in an interview that he sought second opinions from Reps. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) on whether the White House’s argument held water.

“I was guided by them, because when I go out to sell something, I want to know what it is I’m trying to sell,” he said.

They both concluded that the White House’s calculations were likely correct, a finding later reinforced by the Congressional Budget Office’s projection released Tuesday.

The twist — which effectively turned one of McCarthy’s touted achievements into a lament for some conservatives — proved critical for dozens of Democratic lawmakers in the final hours ahead of the vote.

“I prefer listening to the complaints of the Freedom Caucus than I do in focusing on the process of arriving at the deal,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “The fact that the ultra-MAGA Republican wing of the MAGA Republican Party is so opposed to this, I think it’s a testament to how successful a negotiation this has been for the Biden administration.”

How Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene helped McCarthy get his debt deal through

Jim Jordan and other key conservative firebrands have caused a fair share of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's biggest headaches. But instead of leading the rebellion this time, they helped him quash it.

As the House Freedom Caucus was preparing to discuss whether to officially oppose the speaker’s bipartisan debt deal — a move that would potentially galvanize conservative opposition — Jordan (R-Ohio) phoned several fellow members with a request, according to a person familiar with the calls. The former chair of the group urged them to hold back, effectively giving conservatives who wanted to vote with McCarthy license to do so.

Jordan, a longtime McCarthy antagonist turned ally, almost got his wish. The group took no official position until hours before the vote, when most members had already made up their minds.

The beloved House Freedom Caucus co-founder — who gravitated toward McCarthy after the now-speaker tapped him for a senior spot on the Oversight Committee — helped out in other ways. The Ohio lawmaker spoke up in favor of the deal in private calls and meetings, including taking the mic at a closed-door huddle on Tuesday night, just hours after many of his fellow conservatives had spent the day trashing the deal.

And he publicly denounced as a “terrible idea” Rep. Dan Bishop’s talk of moving to remove McCarthy over his compromise with President Joe Biden. By Wednesday afternoon, Bishop (R-N.C.) was refusing to discuss his oust-McCarthy idea, dismissing it as a preoccupation of “fascinated” reporters.

Now, McCarthy has triumphed on one of his toughest votes yet, with rumblings of booting him largely extinguished, at least for now. Asked about the possible long-term impact of the debt deal on conservative goodwill, Jordan said he didn’t think there would be any.

“No, I think we’ve got a good record of doing what we told them we were going to do," he said in an interview.

The backing from Jordan, along with other once unlikely conservative allies with virtually no record of supporting past budget deals like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), has proven to be a lifeline for McCarthy. He’s spent months, and in some cases years, taking steps to win them over, with a plum committee assignment here, a desired debt provision there.

Instead of kowtowing to his most far-right members, McCarthy was forced by the reality of divided government to take a divide-and-conquer strategy on must-pass legislation: Cut a deal with Democrats that does just enough to win over a clutch of conservatives with Freedom Caucus cred, and hope the remaining critics lack the collective willpower to tank the agreement.

If most Republicans get on board, it means threats against his speakership won’t gain real traction. And with two-thirds of the GOP conference backing the deal Wednesday, it seemed to be working.

“We didn’t do it by taking the easy route,” McCarthy said in a celebratory post-vote press conference. “It wasn't an easy fight, I had people on both sides upset.”

But he added: “I think we did pretty damn good for the American people.”

It's an approach that McCarthy will likely need to return to repeatedly heading into a packed fall schedule. Government funding, Pentagon policy and a contentious farm bill will all require a sizable GOP majority in addition to Democratic backing.

And this is probably not the last time he'll need to lean on conservative allies like Jordan, a relationship that has paid dividends after McCarthy continuously elevated the most famous face of the House Freedom Caucus on high-profile committees.

“I think it's about like you'd expect. I think the bulk of the center right conference is gonna support this. I think some of the more colorful members on the edges are not,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), an ally of McCarthy, said before the vote. “There was never going to be any kind of a deal that was gonna get Bob Good and Tim Burchett on board. I don't know that this is unfolding in a way that is particularly surprising.”

Some, however, aren't ready to give McCarthy a pass. And others are indicating trouble is still brewing. Asked about whether there are ongoing discussions about a motion to vacate, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said he doesn't know what to make of it after having "multiple" people call him "today really bugged by how this has gone down."

"There are people, not [Freedom Caucus], who came up to me and told me this very same thing today," Biggs said, leaving the floor after the debt bill passed the House. "And they're using rather colorful language. They were telling me that it's not good. And in that, in their opinion, that they probably just shot Republican's agenda next year."

Still, the anger on the right over McCarthy’s debt negotiation illustrates the bind he can’t escape: appeasing conservatives famously hostile to compromise, while also proving the GOP’s ability to govern alongside Biden. Both McCarthy and the president proved they could work together despite frequent frustrations, with the speaker even surprising his own party by praising Biden’s team on their negotiating skills. Regardless, the two proved they were able to secure a joint political win — or enough of one — to keep their bases happy.

But when it comes to House Republicans, the conservatives’ threats against McCarthy reopen wounds from the bruising battle over his speakership election. A handful of the 20 Republicans who sought to block him are now threatening to seek revenge over the debt deal.

“There are still some pretty deep divisions,” said senior Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.). “We’ve rocked along pretty well, got quite a bit accomplished in this Congress. But as I predicted months ago, we really don’t know the true character of this conference until you have your first heavy lift. And this is it.”

Some of that tension was exposed at Tuesday night's roughly two-hour conference meeting, where dozens of members lined up to speak up about the deal. While attendees described a mostly united party, some McCarthy allies had warnings for their conservative colleagues. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the former Agriculture Committee chair, sought to remind Freedom Caucus members that their tactics with the 2013 farm bill had cost them $20 billion in fiscal cuts.

It’ll only be a few more months before Republicans will need to strike another deal with Democrats on a massive government spending bill. And until then, senior Republicans acknowledge there’s work to be done to rebuild trust that’s been lost between McCarthy, his allies and conservatives. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) is Exhibit A — he'd been a cheerleader of the GOP’s original debt bill but became furious with the bipartisan deal, encouraging “every Republican” to vote against it.

“I’m not going to lie, we have some relationship repair that needs to happen. We do,” said lead GOP negotiator Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), who was visibly frustrated by fellow Republicans who have criticized it as a bad deal.

Roy, when asked about efforts to persuade him to support the compromise, argued “no one was confused about my position. The only question is how to move forward.”

Graves and Roy, who were in touch on a near-daily basis during negotiations and even held joint press briefings, have spoken privately about their frustrations with each other. And the Louisiana Republican quipped that they’ve agreed that they will both need to sit down and talk “over several bottles of something” to hash things out further.

“There are some pretty raw feelings, I think, on both sides right now,” Graves said.

For now though, few Republicans are seriously worrying about any real threat to McCarthy’s speakership. Despite some saber-rattling, the GOP’s right flank isn't united on pursuing the idea — and some in the conservative wing voiced disappointment that a small number of their colleagues would leap straight to threatening a no-confidence vote.

“The point was that this is a work in progress. They worked their butts off. And this is a start,” said Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), a Freedom Caucus member who likes the debt bill but says he was “inundated” by his constituents to oppose the bill. “And for the discussion to start being about vacate the chair? Come on.”

“We haven't had a sit down and said, ‘Okay, what's our strategy on the motion to vacate?'” added Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), another Freedom Caucus member who said the talk was premature. “But before we even get down there, there's a lot more discussions that have to happen and they just haven't happened yet.”

One senior House Republican, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a push to oust McCarthy could have the opposite effect: “It’d be a good way to consolidate support around McCarthy,” the person said. “The rest of the conference would circle wagons.”

Jordain Carney contributed.

House passes bipartisan debt deal, sending it to Senate

The House passed legislation Wednesday to raise the nation's borrowing limit through 2024, sending it to the Senate with less than six days until a June 5 default deadline.

The vote united a swath of Republicans and Democrats, and was opposed by a swath of conservative and progressive lawmakers, with a few of the former floating an attempt to strip Speaker Kevin McCarthy of his gavel over the bipartisan debt agreement he negotiated.

The hurdles aren’t over yet. The bill still needs to clear the Senate by Monday’s deadline.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can start setting up votes on the debt bill as soon as Thursday, with the first vote on Saturday absent agreement from all 100 senators. Several senators want votes on amendments as a condition to speed up the process, and Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell hope to finish work on the bill before the weekend by crafting a deal on amendments and sending it to President Joe Biden’s desk days before the Monday deadline.

But passing the bill marks the House’s biggest bipartisan victory since Republicans took over the chamber this year. Until now, McCarthy’s repeated wrangling of members has mostly been on a series of messaging bills with no Democratic support and no chance at becoming law. And he faced plenty of questions on whether he could get enough Republican support for the debt plan.

"Don't miss out. Don't sit back and think, 'I wanted something so much more,'” McCarthy said, describing his pitch to members. “Yeah, there's a lot of things I want, too, but this is one that moves us in the right direction."

In the end, McCarthy lost 71 House Republicans, while 149 backed it. But the bill easily passed with support from 165 Democrats, who were torn between voting for a bill that includes some policies they oppose or risking a default.

“I have mixed emotions because, on one hand, I think that what our colleagues are doing is punitive and just bad for a country. But I also recognize the importance of protecting the full faith and credit of my country,” said Rep. Troy Carter (D-La.).

But there was still plenty of internal GOP drama, despite the pre-baked outcome.

In addition to raising the debt ceiling until Jan. 1, 2025, the debt bill sets top-line spending levels for two years. It also, among other provisions, automatically cuts government funding by one percent absent spending bills passed by Jan. 1. Republicans have also touted new work requirements and other restrictions for certain social safety net programs.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and other senior Republicans also tried to prevent a potential last-minute revolt after a CBO score projected the work requirement changes in the bill would actually increase spending for the key food aid program, due to exemptions for veterans, homeless people and young adults recently aged out of foster care, according to CBO.

The conservative House Freedom Caucus also formally came out against the legislation just hours before the vote, making a doomed pitch for their colleagues to sink the bill and “force Democrats back to the negotiating table.”

“The Biden-McCarthy deal … threatens to shatter Republican unity,” they wrote.

McCarthy made a swaggering pitch to his members during a closed-door hours-long conference meeting Tuesday night, which several GOP lawmakers compared to a pep rally meant to drive up support for the agreement.

But that did little to appease his most ardent holdouts. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who ultimately narrowly missed Wednesday night’s vote, said afterward that “the cheering doesn’t move me.” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) also railed against the deal Wednesday, saying: “My beef is that you cut a deal that shouldn’t have been cut.”

McCarthy and his team worked up until the vote to try to drive up the number of Republicans who would support the deal. The more GOP yeas he put on the board, the more leadership could isolate the small crop of conservatives contemplating mutiny — strengthening McCarthy’s hand as he heads into new governing challenges, not to mention the 2024 elections.

The GOP’s whip operation formally began on Saturday, even before the text of the deal was finalized. Since then, Majority Whip Tom Emmer and his team have touched base with “every single” Republican — some members had two or three conversations, according to a Republican familiar with the discussions.

Emmer and chief deputy whip Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) made many of those calls, in addition to one-on-one meetings with members in the whip’s office. But other McCarthy allies jumped in to pitch key corners of the conference including Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.), Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.) and Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.).

Some of McCarthy’s fiercest detractors also raised the prospect of trying to oust him from the speakership — a likely doomed effort but one that still threatens to reopen old wounds from the high-drama fight over the House gavel.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), one of the lead GOP negotiators, said he wasn’t worried about McCarthy being ousted, arguing that he had been constantly “underestimated.”

“The week of the speaker’s vote, the lack of negotiation, there have been multiple times this calendar year alone that he’s been underestimated. The vote tonight will prove out why that is the wrong proposition here,” McHenry said.

But there are already vows among some to try to start a conversation about the motion to vacate — how they could try to oust McCarthy — next week.

“All I’m gonna advocate for at this point is to have a discussion about the motion to vacate,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who opposed the bill.

Sarah Ferris, Burgess Everett, Meredith Lee Hill, Nicholas Wu and Daniella Diaz contributed to this report.

Former candidate charged in shooting spree at New Mexico officials' homes

A former GOP candidate for the New Mexico House of Representatives has been indicted for his alleged role in a series of drive-by shootings targeting the homes of four elected officials in the state.

Following his failed bid for the seat in New Mexico’s 14th District during the 2022 midterm elections, Solomon Peña orchestrated shootings at the homes of two Bernalillo County commissioners and two New Mexico state legislators between Dec. 3, 2022, and Jan. 3, according to the Justice Department's indictment, which was unsealed Wednesday.

Before planning the shooting spree, Peña visited the homes of at least three Bernalillo County commissioners, the DOJ said, in an effort to get them not to certify the results of the election, which he claimed had been “rigged” against him.

Peña allegedly worked with two accomplices — Demetrio Trujillo and Jose Trujillo — to carry out the shootings, and carried out one on his own, according to the indictment. Family members of the officials, including children, were in the homes during at least three of the shootings, though no one was wounded or killed in any of the shootings.

“In America, the integrity of our voting system is sacrosanct,” Alexander M.M. Uballez, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, said in a statement Wednesday.

“These charges strike at the heart of our democracy," he said. "Voters, candidates, and election officials must be free to exercise their rights and do their jobs safely and free from fear, intimidation, or influence, and with confidence that law enforcement and prosecuting offices will lead the charge when someone tries to silence the will of the people.”

Worshipper describes fear during gunman’s deadly attack on Pittsburgh synagogue

PITTSBURGH — It was her brother’s active faith that inspired Carol Black to recommit as an adult to being a practicing Jew several years ago, and their shared commitment brought them to the Tree of Life synagogue on the October 2018 day it was attacked.

Testifying on the second day of the trial of the man who carried out the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history, Black told jurors Wednesday about how she and others in her New Light congregation heard loud noises as they started Sabbath services. They soon realized it was gunfire, so some of them hid in a storage room.

“I just remained calm. ... I thought by remaining calm, I would not give my position away,” she testified in the Pittsburgh federal courtroom.

Black, 71, recalled how she remained hidden even as she saw congregant Mel Wax, who had been hiding close to her, drop dead after the gunman shot him. Wax, 87, was hard of hearing and had opened the storage door, apparently believing the attack was over, she said. Black didn’t learn until later that her 65-year-old brother, Richard Gottfried, was among the 11 people killed in the attack.

The testimony came in the trial of Robert Bowers, a truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin. Bowers, 50, could face the death penalty if he’s convicted of some of the 63 counts he faces in the Oct. 27, 2018, attack, which claimed the lives of worshippers from three congregations who were using the synagogue that day: New Light, Dor Hadash and the Tree of Life.

That Bowers carried out the attack, which also injured seven people, isn’t in question: His lawyer Judy Clarke acknowledged as much on the trial’s first day. But hoping to spare Bowers from the death penalty, Clarke questioned the hate crime counts he faces, suggesting instead that he attacked the synagogue out of an irrational belief that he needed to kill Jews to save others from a genocide that he claimed they were enabling by helping immigrants come to the U.S.

Prosecutors, who rejected Bowers’ offer to plead guilty in exchange for removing the possibility that he could be sentenced to death, have said Bowers made incriminating statements to investigators and left an online trail of antisemitic statements that shows the attack was motivated by religious hatred.

Bowers, who only surrendered on the day of the attack after police shot him three times, had commented on Gab, a social media site popular with the far right, that Dor Hadash had hosted a refugee-oriented Sabbath service in conjunction with HIAS, a Jewish agency whose work includes aiding refugees.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo Song began Wednesday’s proceedings by asking Black about her affiliation with the New Light congregation. She recalled how her brother, Gottfried, became more observant after their father’s death and how she later began attending services regularly, getting so involved that she had an adult bat mitzvah — a Jewish right of passage that she hadn’t had as a teenager.

“I was rededicating myself to Judaism,” she said.

She recalled fondly how in 2017, she and her brother carried Torah scrolls as they paraded from their old synagogue, which the small congregation had sold in a downsizing, to their new location in rented space at the Tree of Life building.

She said Gottfried, Wax and 71-year-old Dan Stein were “the three main pillars of our congregation.” On the morning of the attack, Gottfried and Stein were in a kitchen near the sanctuary planning a men’s group breakfast for the next day when Bowers killed them.

Black said she and fellow member Barry Werber hid in a darkened storage closet for what “felt like a year” before police rescued them. And she said that as she left, she quietly said goodbye to Wax as she had to step over his body to follow the officers.

Werber, 81, also testified about hiding in the closet.

“My mind was clouded with panic,” said Werber, who also saw Wax get killed.

“I heard gunshots,” Werber testified. “Mel Wax fell back into the room, and a short time later the door opened slightly. I saw a figure of a person step over the body and then step back. He couldn’t see us. It was too dark.”

Jurors also heard the recordings of 911 calls made by Werber and Gottfried.

Bowers, like on the trial’s first day, showed little emotion as he sat at the defense table.

Jurors also heard testimony from Dan Leger, who was severely wounded in the attack.

Leger, now 75, and two other members of Dor Hadash were gathered in an upstairs room about to start a Torah study when they heard gunshots. One of the participants fled. Leger, a nurse and chaplain, and Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz decided to see if they could assist anyone who might be injured.

“Jerry was a physician, I’m a nurse. ... We knew instinctively that what we needed to do was try to do something to help. So we both moved into the direction of the gunfire, which perhaps was a stupid thing to do, but that’s what we did,” Leger said.

Rabinowitz, 66, was killed. Leger was shot in the abdomen and lay on the staircase, keeping still so as not to let the shooter know he was still alive.

He heard the voice of Tree of Life member Irving Younger calling out the name of fellow member Cecil Rosenthal in horror. Younger and Rosenthal were both killed.

The pain soon became “excruciating,” Leger said.

While waiting for rescue, Leger said his breathing became labored, and he recognized the symptoms: “I felt that I was dying.”

He uttered the Shema — a Jewish prayer professing faith in one God — and he prayed a final confession of his sins.

“I reviewed my life, I thought about the wonder of it all, and the beauty of my life and the happiness I had experienced,” he said, including with his family and friends.

Although he said he was “ready to go,” Leger was rescued and underwent multiple surgeries. He still suffers from severe injuries, including a hip fracture, nerve damage and abdominal wounds that required the removal of a large section of his intestines.

DeSantis' relatability tour kicks off in Iowa

SALIX, Iowa — When a Slim Chickens fast food restaurant opened in Tallahassee in January, Ron DeSantis told a crowd here Wednesday, the Florida governor loaded his 6-, 5-, and 3-year-olds into the car to go try it for themselves.

They waited for 45 minutes in a jam-packed drive-thru as DeSantis called his wife, Casey, their children screaming in the background. Then his youngest had to use the bathroom.

“'Little potty, little potty,'” the GOP presidential candidate recalled the 3-year-old demanding, shaking her head and refusing to go as he took her inside the restaurant’s facilities. “I’m like, ‘They don’t have little potty in Slim Chickens!’”

Left unsaid inside Port Neal Welding was whether there was any security detail tailing the Florida governor. But this was DeSantis on his first big swing through Iowa after announcing his presidential campaign. Long viewed by critics as aloof, he was attempting to soften the edges. The DeSantises, he suggested in story after story Wednesday, are young, they are energetic and they are just like you.

For DeSantis, it marked a significant effort to come across as relatable in a state whose caucus politics demand it. But he was also seeking to make a point of contrast with former President Donald Trump, who leads significantly in polling and with whom DeSantis remains aligned on many policy issues. Unlike Trump, the governor has described his own upbringing as middle-class. On Wednesday, Casey DeSantis described the couple as “gas station connoisseurs,” noting her favorite snacks so far from Casey’s, a chain of Midwest convenience stores.

DeSantis himself went so far as to call Buc-ee’s, another chain found in southern states, “about like Shangri-La, with respect to service stations.”

It was a full-on barrage of folksy from Ron and Casey DeSantis as they traveled through the state Wednesday, the theme of parenting and family life one DeSantis now brings up at nearly all his campaign appearances.

DeSantis’ whirlwind campaign travel follows months of media attention that called into question the strength of his social skills. Both allies and critics wondered just how committed the Florida governor would be to the campaign trail — whether he would embrace the traditional early-state meet-and-greets in diners and factories that most other presidential contenders make part of their weekly agenda.

DeSantis is still keeping some distance. So far, his campaign stops have not featured a question-and-answer session with the audience, though he speaks with supporters one-on-one afterward. But in trying to make a connection with voters, at each of the governor’s first three stops in Iowa on Tuesday and Wednesday, Casey DeSantis opened her remarks with an apology for her slightly hoarse voice: She had been “negotiating with a 3-year-old” about not coloring with permanent marker on the dining room table.

After DeSantis’ stump speech Wednesday, for exactly 10 minutes of the couple’s half-hour “fireside chat” in front of 150 people in a welding shop, the pair regaled the audience with talk of shuffling out of leotards and into T-ball uniforms, coloring on the walls, keeping track of the children's birthday party social calendar and working out naptime. Sitting on stage before a John Deere 8400T tractor, over his dress shirt DeSantis wore a zip-up vest embroidered with “Ron Desantis, Florida Governor” and his wife an athletic jacket with her own personalization: “Casey DeSantis, First Lady of Florida.”

They told the story about DeSantis in January taking their eldest two to Kansas City to cheer on the Jacksonville Jaguars in the playoffs. There, the children joined the opposing team’s fans in the Chiefs’ tomahawk chop, something they recognized from Florida State Seminoles games.

And the 3-year-old, Casey DeSantis said — in an anecdote that might not quite resonate with anyone lacking a security detail — now insists on buckling the seatbelt herself, often holding up the Florida Department of Law Enforcement motorcade. A large point of contention: The buckle doesn’t snap into her car seat cup holder.

The couple, who last month traveled around Japan, South Korea, Israel and the United Kingdom with the eldest children in tow, intend to bring those two to Iowa on Saturday when DeSantis returns to attend Sen. Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride at the Iowa Fairgrounds.

They spoke at length about how their parental duties didn’t stop during that last big trip. DeSantis described a scene of a tired father awake with his kids in a hotel room in the middle of the night, trying to find something they could snack on.

“We never got on a schedule timewise, so they'd be up at 2 a.m. and the one thing I learned — I learned when breakfast room service starts, because they needed food, and it's not open at 2 in the morning.”

When the family got back and his 6-year-old awoke the following evening at midnight, after sleeping most of the day, he and his son loaded up into the car to go get chicken fingers from Raising Cane’s.

“It's like, drunk Florida State students and me and Mason going through the drive-thru,” he said, clearly entertaining the laughing audience. “And I'm just thinking to myself, you know, it's a pretty crazy whirlwind, what we're doing here as parents.”

DeSantis is running far behind Trump at the outset of his campaign, with surveys showing DeSantis must rise as much as 30 points with Republican voters to overtake Trump’s lead. And other Republican candidates fighting to be the Trump alternative, including Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, Vivek Ramaswamy and soon-to-be-declared Mike Pence, have shown their own commitment to intimate, retail-style campaigning in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

But Republican operatives and political leaders here caution against using national data to gauge sentiment on the ground in Iowa.

“This isn’t a national race. National polling is really irrelevant for quite some time yet,” said Kim Schmett, who hosts the Westside Conservative Club in Urbandale.

He noted that Iowans are likely only slowly turning into this spring’s campaign activity: “Most people right now — unless you’re really a hardcore junkie — don’t know who’s been here yet.”

But that’s all changing — quickly. Schmett acknowledged the deluge of candidates coming through Des Moines just in the course of a few days this week, calling it “full bore.”

After DeSantis’ speeches at his first two stops Wednesday, he stepped down from the stage and mingled with the crowd gathered. DeSantis asked people about where they lived and went to school. “How far is Omaha from here? About 30 minutes?” he asked a supporter while inside a small event center in Council Bluffs, 2 miles up the street from downtown Omaha.

Standing on the outer edge of a crowd of people surrounding DeSantis for photos and autographs after his speech in Council Bluffs, his campaign manager, Generra Peck, told an elderly couple to hang tight and stick next to her, that she would make sure they got to meet him.

Clutching both a three-ring binder and a paper cup of coffee in one hand, Peck took the woman’s phone to snap a photo of the couple with DeSantis.

In the crowd in Salix, Priscilla Forsyth, of Sioux City, said she’d been struck by both candidates she has seen come through her part of Iowa in recent weeks: DeSantis and Scott. She liked Scott’s “positive message” and appreciates how DeSantis has gone after Disney.

She wasn’t worried about the governor’s interpersonal skills.

“You know, I keep hearing how he's stiff and all these things,” Forsyth said of DeSantis. “But it's like, you know, I'm not looking for a friend. I'm looking for a leader.”

Senate advances repeal of Biden’s student debt relief

A Republican-led effort to overturn President Joe Biden’s student debt relief plan narrowly cleared a key procedural hurdle in the Senate on Wednesday as several moderate Democrats broke with the White House and backed the measure.

On a 51-46 vote, the Senate advanced legislation that would repeal Biden’s debt cancellation program and nullify the pause on monthly payments and interest.

Vote breakdown: A handful of moderate Senate Democrats joined with Republicans to move forward on the rebuke of Biden’s signature effort to provide student loan forgiveness to tens of millions of Americans.

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) as well as independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) voted in favor of the procedural motion to start debate on the measure.

Dem rebuke: Republicans have nearly uniformly opposed mass student loan forgiveness since Biden last August unveiled his plan to cancel up to $20,000 of debt per borrower.

But the Senate vote on Wednesday was the first formal pushback from centrist Democrats who have previously expressed unease with Biden’s effort to forgive large swaths of student debt.

Key context: The House passed the resolution on a nearly party-line vote last week with the support of most Republicans and a pair of Democratic lawmakers.

Under the Congressional Review Act, the fast-track procedure that lawmakers are using to try to stop the student debt relief, the Senate could pass the measure later this week on a simple majority vote.

But the White House has promised that Biden would veto the bill if Congress were to pass it.

The bill hasn’t attracted enough support in either the House or Senate to comprise the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override a presidential veto.

Debt deal: The Senate is taking up the measure as Congress weighs a debt ceiling agreement that would also solidify the end of the pause on federal student loan payments and interest that’s been in place since March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic.

The bill, which the House is expected to take up later on Wednesday, would require the Biden administration to resume collecting student loans and charging interest after Aug. 30.

White House officials fended off Republican efforts to include in the deal a full repeal of Biden’s student debt cancellation plan, to the chagrin of many conservative lawmakers.

Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young, a lead negotiator, said on Tuesday that Biden’s loan forgiveness was “saved” in the final deal.

"This bill does end the payment pause, but very close to the timeframe we were going to end it,” she said. The Biden administration previously said it would keep the payment pause until the end of August at the latest.

What’s next: A final vote on the Congressional Review Act resolution in the Senate is set for Thursday.

The plan is on hold while the Supreme Court deliberates over legal challenges brought by Republican attorneys general and a conservative group. The justices in the coming weeks are expected to issue a ruling on whether the plan can proceed.

McCarthy tries to hold off last-minute rebellion over work requirements in debt deal

House Republican leaders are trying to stave off another wave of GOP defections just hours before a final vote on a deal to avert a national default — this time over the work requirements for aid programs that Republican leaders have publicly touted as a win for their party.

The latest rebellion was spurred by a Congressional Budget Office report released Tuesday night that estimates spending on the food aid program that Republicans attempted to cut during the debt ceiling negotiations would actually increase under the agreement reached by Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden. That has set off a firestorm among conservative lawmakers — threatening a larger revolt within their fractious caucus hours before a final vote on the legislation to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a default. With the help of Democratic votes, McCarthy still appeared poised to push the bill through the House later Wednesday — leaving an increasingly angry right flank of his caucus steaming over the GOP concessions.

In addition to expanding the age group of people on food aid subject to work requirements, the deal to raise the debt ceiling creates new exemptions from work requirements for veterans, homeless people and those aging out of the foster care system — something the White House pushed for in the negotiations. CBO analysts found that those series of work requirement changes will collectively increase spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s largest anti-hunger program for low-income people, by $2.1 billion.

“This is going to hurt with fiscal conservatives,” one House Republican member who planned to vote “no” on the bill texted from the closed-door House GOP caucus meeting just after the CBO report hit Tuesday night.

As word spread about the CBO report’s findings, texts, emails and calls from already restless rank-and-file members surged. Senior Republicans directed anxious members to Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), who has helped push the work requirements policy during the talks. “Dusty has the answers,” was one reply from a senior Republican lawmaker.

While House Republican leaders and McCarthy allies sought to immediately tamp down the furor, reaching out to members late into the night to argue the CBO projections were wrong, their arguments failed to quell some far-right lawmakers’ concerns. One of the debt deal’s most visible critics, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), blasted the bill’s “watered down work requirements that save $0” on Twitter Wednesday morning. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) meanwhile issued a series of scathing tweets about how she “won’t be voting to expand government welfare today.”

Two GOP lawmakers, who were granted anonymity to discuss internal matters, said they worried the CBO projection could push members over the edge, or they could use it as cover to oppose a bill that’s deeply unpopular among several dozen GOP hardliners.

Realizing they needed to stanch the bleeding, GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and a lineup of more than half a dozen heavy-hitting senior Republicans quickly assembled a call with reporters to argue the CBO score used “weak information” and double-counted unhoused people, veterans and youth recently aged out of foster care who would be covered for the first time under the deal

Stefanik argued the work requirements in the bill, including stricter measures for adults ages 50 to 54 without children, “will lift millions of Americans out of poverty and reenergize the workforce.”

House Agricultural Chair G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.), who oversees SNAP, said the CBO’s final funding estimate of the SNAP changes “should‘ve been a wash.”

Congressional Republicans have a longtime beef with CBO over the scoring of nutrition program spending and enrollment, but they knowingly rolled the dice with CBO analysts when they agreed to the exemptions sought by White House negotiators. Johnson also pushed back against Democratic arguments that work requirements don’t actually move people into the workforce, but only take away food aid. But, Johnson and other Republicans on the call did acknowledge that the push for stricter work requirements may cost more on “the front end,” by extending aid to certain groups before they can drop off the program and enter the workforce.

Some Republicans on the call defended the work requirements exemptions that the White House was able to insert during the negotiations — especially for former foster youth.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), one of the Republicans who helped negotiate the deal, told reporters Wednesday that he generally agreed with some of the exemptions Democrats fought for, saying that the U.S. needs “more thoughtful public policy for those who are emerging from foster care.”

“This is something those of us that know something about foster care are deeply concerned about and that's what we baked into this agreement,” McHenry said.

McCarthy has touted the new work requirements and other restrictions for SNAP and an emergency cash assistance program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as one of the major wins for Republicans in the debt negotiations with Biden — especially since a wide swath of Democrats fiercely oppose such measures. The TANF changes in particular would hit low-income families with children.

In a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday evening, McCarthy didn’t directly address the new CBO score, but he made clear to his members that the new work requirements for SNAP and TANF would have never passed through a Democratic-majority Senate on their own, and had to be forced through in the agreement with Biden, according to two lawmakers in the room, who were granted anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

White House negotiators knew the work requirement exemptions they secured during the negotiations with Republicans, would likely mean the total number of people covered under SNAP would remain the same — with the new populations covered by the exemptions offsetting the estimated 275,000 adults in their 50s without children who are likely to lose food aid under the deal. White House officials have been aggressively pushing that point with Hill Democrats as they try to secure enough votes for the legislation.

But not all Democratic lawmakers have been comforted by the push.

“This is a food benefit. So moving the deck chairs around and saying, you get food, but you don’t — that’s not a very convincing argument to me,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the House’s leading anti-hunger advocate, said in an interview Tuesday. It’s also unclear to some lawmakers and anti-hunger advocates that the estimates on new SNAP beneficiaries, on paper, will actually bear out in reality, given the immense logistical challenge of signing up several hundred thousand new recipients, many unhoused and without documentation.

Democrats in the Senate are also still alarmed by the loss of food aid for hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans under the agreement, even if other vulnerable groups are successful in gaining new access.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in an interview called the bill “incredibly bad” and claimed Republicans were pushing the country to default unless they could take food away from children. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who chairs the subcommittee overseeing SNAP, has seemingly threatened to oppose any bill that hit the program.

A spokesperson for Fetterman said he “is still reviewing the debt limit legislation to understand SNAP and the Pennsylvania-related impacts, and he’s requested more information on both.”

And there’s no chance at this point for Democrats to strip the SNAP work requirements from the bill, something a group of House Democrats is still trying to push.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a key swing vote, said in an interview Tuesday that he doesn’t support voting on any amendments in the Senate. (That also helps protect a key pipeline measure he’s included.) In the case that a SNAP amendment was to come up in the upper chamber. Manchin, who’s previously told POLITICO he supports welfare to work reform, would likely oppose it — killing its chances. Even if some Senate progressives ultimately vote “no,” the chamber is still likely to pass the legislation. If most Republicans vote in favor of the debt deal, they only need a dozen or so Senate Democrats to pass the bill.