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Speaker Kevin McCarthy is celebrating after the House passed the debt ceiling bill

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Roughly six months after Kevin McCarthy fought through GOP opposition to be elected speaker of the House, he negotiated a bipartisan bill with President Biden to lift the debt ceiling. And the compromise passed overwhelmingly, with more than 300 votes.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: This is one of the best nights I've ever been here. I thought it would be hard. I thought it'd be almost impossible just to get to 218.

SUMMERS: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now to talk about this moment for the speaker. Hey there.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So Deirdre, how did McCarthy do it?

WALSH: Well, a key factor goes back to the deal McCarthy cut with conservatives in January. He agreed to their demand that he would not allow a vote on any clean bill to raise the debt ceiling. It had to include spending cuts. McCarthy pushed this position consistently, starting with his meeting with the president back in February. Previous deals on the debt ceiling during divided government have included spending reforms, and that's something that McCarthy actually noted the night he was elected speaker. The president continued to demand no strings attached to any bill to avoid a default. But McCarthy kept working with his members to put together a plan that appealed to all different factions of his conference. The president kept saying, show us your plan. And then the speaker actually came up with one, and it was able to pass the House. That forced talks with President Biden.

SUMMERS: OK. Deirdre, I know you cover Congress, but do you think that the White House misjudged how Kevin McCarthy was handling the debt ceiling?

WALSH: I do because officials at the White House didn't believe that McCarthy could keep his members together and actually pass a Republican bill. I think a lot of them believed the speaker would be forced to accept a clean bill. Louisiana Republican Garret Graves - he was one of the two Republican negotiators. He talked about this with reporters before last night's vote.

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GARRET GRAVES: No question - White House miscalculated on this one. They misjudged the speaker. He is hands-down the best strategist I've ever worked with.

WALSH: The other issue is that McCarthy and President Biden didn't really have much of a relationship. Another Republican negotiator, Congressman Patrick McHenry, said that relationship got better with the talks, but he joked about something that McCarthy and Biden do have in common.

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PATRICK MCHENRY: Right. But you've got two Irish guys that don't drink.

WALSH: McHenry said they do share a sweet tooth, though.

SUMMERS: OK. So, Deirdre, what about Democrats? How did they think the White House handled these talks?

WALSH: Some thought the president could have been more publicly, aggressively out there pushing back against the speaker. McCarthy was just on television constantly, talking to reporters, getting his message out. In these types of negotiations, it often comes down to personal relationships, too. One Democrat I talked to before the deal was announced, Dean Phillips of Minnesota, said he thought the talks should have started earlier.

DEAN PHILLIPS: I happen to believe that building relationships and having conversation should begin as early as humanly possible. And this is an institution that's predicated on negotiation.

WALSH: Some other Democrats complained that this fight over the debt ceiling could have been avoided entirely. Democrats did have the chance to add a provision to lift the debt limit to the large spending bill they passed when they controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House in December.

SUMMERS: And briefly, Deirdre, from McCarthy, how is his relationship with conservatives? Many of them voted against this deal. Will they try to oust him?

WALSH: Right now no one is pushing to remove the speaker, but under House rules, it only takes one member to force a vote. But, really, there's no one who could get the votes right now in the Republican conference to replace him. Overall, I think this fight actually boosted McCarthy's political capital among House Republicans.

SUMMERS: NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thanks.

WALSH: Thanks, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.

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