Rep. Garrett Graves, a Louisiana Republican, was not elected to any House leadership position and does not serve as a powerful committee chair. But as consigliere to Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who described Graves as the “assistant coach” of the Republican Party, he has become a central player in every major legislative push in the House.
More recently, that has meant taking the lead role in uniting the contentious Republican conference behind a bill to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for cutting spending and disrupting important elements of President Biden’s domestic agenda.
A former House staffer first elected to Congress in 2015, Graves, 51, now has the unenviable job of rallying Republican members behind whatever deal McCarthy can strike with Biden to avoid a catastrophic default. debt payment. He is the point person for the so-called five families within the GOP House, who represent the full range of ideological views within the party.
In an interview, Graves projected some optimism about the McCarthy-Biden talks. But he blamed the president and Democrats for the impasse, sidestepping the fact that it is the Republicans who have caused the current impasse by refusing to agree to raising the debt limit without deep spending cuts. He accused the White House of “trying to fight a public relations battle” over the debt limit, even though Republicans for months have also been fighting one of their own.
Biden says he won’t negotiate with Republicans on raising the debt limit, and his advisers reject his contention that the current debt trajectory poses a significant threat to economic growth.
Still, with a deadline for a potential default looming as soon as June 1, Graves said four broad areas of negotiation have emerged for a possible budget deal: cap federal spending, recover unspent funds designated for Covid emergency, impose stricter work requirements for federal benefits and speed up permitting for energy projects.
Mr. Graves spoke to The New York Times after spending a morning touring restaurants in his district, a regular tradition he says puts him in touch with his constituents’ concerns and values more than any survey.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
House Republicans once said they wanted to balance the budget in 10 years and review the annual budget process. Now, he’s outlining some potential cuts, but they’re far from a total rethink of the way we finance government. Is this a capitulation?
From a Negotiation 101 perspective, start with areas where you have some agreement or common understanding. Helps build trust. I never said that those would be the four things we would agree on. That is the beginning.
There is no capitulation. The president has not proposed anything that can be approved by the House or the Senate. Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, has filed nothing, period. The only thing that is really relevant right now is our bill.
For many fiscally conservative Republicans, some of whom are reflexively resistant to raising the debt limit, passing their bill is probably as far as they are willing to go. What are you doing to manage expectations of a possible deal with the White House that is much more modest than what they hope for or are ultimately willing to vote for?
It’s hard to say, because I can’t tell you what the deal is like. The four things we would agree on are certainly not the exhaustive list of things we expect.
Number two, I don’t want to sit here and negotiate with you. I can’t speak for the president, but go back and read some of his comments on the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations, when he agreed to negotiate with the Republicans. If he can just resume that mentality, then we can do this. Pretty fast. The things we have proposed are just beginning, why wouldn’t you agree to those things?
How do you think this ends?
I am sure that if there is goodwill on the part of the White House, this could be done in 48 hours. I think it’s going to take a change of heart on the part of the White House to try and fight a public relations battle. We can do this, and we can do it without causing carnage.
Conversely, if they’re going to try, and I think they’ve softened up a bit, but if they try to continue this PR campaign and “we’re not going to negotiate,” then this doesn’t end well.
How concerned are House Republicans about the actual default? Is it a real fear, or is it seen as a charged political talking point?
I haven’t heard anyone say they’re scared, and I haven’t heard anyone say, “Hey, I want to stop paying.”
… Except for former President Donald J. Trump, who said at a CNN town hall earlier this week that Republicans should let the country go into default if they can’t get acceptable spending cuts.
Well, I didn’t see that at all. I read a headline; I really don’t know exactly what he said or the context in which he said it. In terms of our side, behind closed doors, in front of microphones, I haven’t heard anyone say, “Hey, I want to stop paying.” I think there are good intentions on our side.
But there is no question that it was a strategic decision by the White House and the Democrats to try to fabricate the crisis by getting as close to endorsement as possible. That is why there were 97 days of non-communication, that is why they said they would not negotiate. Those were tactics to create the crisis, and they believed that this would give them more leverage in the negotiations.
The problem that they have caused themselves is that if there is a default, they own it 100 percent.
(A White House spokesman, Andrew Bates, responded: “House Republicans are admitting that they alone are holding millions of jobs, retirement accounts and businesses hostage unless they are paid a growing list of extreme demands from bailout.” He added, “President Biden is not demanding anything in exchange for avoiding default.”)
What do you want from these talks with the White House?
Something to raise the debt ceiling. But something else that is a top priority is something that will really bend the curve. The trajectory we are on right now is absolutely unsustainable. It is punitive for children and grandchildren.
How did you end up in this role of designated coordinator of the so-called five families within the Republican conference?
I thought the speaker’s career was embarrassing. See that the Chamber cannot take the reins and start working on priority issues. Nobody asked me to do anything, but I started having conversations with different people. Fast forward, we’re past all of that, and McCarthy’s like, “Hey, what do you want?”
I said, “I want you to be a good speaker.” He came back and said, “The groups of people you summoned, they shouldn’t just disband. That should continue and contribute to the functionality of the Chamber.” That’s how it evolved.
I do not want to deceive you and tell you that everything is perfect and that everything is going very well. But when you look at the points on the board, it just proves that this model works.
Has your view of some of the more extreme members you serve with changed?
I didn’t have an incredibly high opinion of Rep. Chip Roy, Republican of Texas, going into this. He is now one of my best friends.