Debt Ceiling Emerges as Potential Trump-DeSantis Battle Ground

Spending deal is one of the first live issues on which the candidates will offer contrasting visions

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump.
May 30, 2023

Florida governor Ron DeSantis (R.) and former president Donald Trump are likely to clash on the tentative debt ceiling agreement House Republicans struck with the White House, turning the already contentious debt battle into one of the first live issues on which the two candidates will offer contrasting visions.

DeSantis and his allies say the deal, which was announced late Saturday, does little to address the nation’s debt crisis. DeSantis, in a Monday interview with Fox News, called it "wholly inadequate" and said that "after this deal our country will still be careening toward bankruptcy." Trump, who initially urged Republicans to use the threat of default as a bargaining chip, has been uncharacteristically silent on the deal. But his allies have praised the deal as a way to cut Democratic spending initiatives.

The debt agreement is the latest sticking point between the Trump and DeSantis campaigns, which have been clashing in the days since the latter launched. Trump has repeatedly lashed out at DeSantis, while the Florida governor has pitched himself as a more electable alternative to the former president. Should Trump come out in favor of the agreement, it would bolster DeSantis’s efforts to appeal to conservatives. The governor has already positioned himself to Trump's right on issues like abortion and the president’s handling of the coronavirus.

DeSantis indirectly attacked Trump on the latter issue during his Fox interview, saying that the March 2020 COVID-19 stimulus package put the nation "on a trajectory" to bankruptcy.

Republicans notched modest victories with the debt ceiling agreement, which will cap federal spending next year and slow spending growth through 2025 in exchange for a two-year debt ceiling hike. The bill would also cut IRS funding and impose minor adjustments to work requirements for welfare. Those provisions were far from House Republicans’ initial demands, which included a decade of spending caps, a complete rollback of the Inflation Reduction Act’s IRS funding boost, and stringent work requirements for social assistance programs.

But some of Trump’s most outspoken congressional boosters, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R., Ga.)  and Elise Stefanik (R., N.Y.), applauded it as evidence that Republicans have kept their promise to rein in Democratic spending. Greene and others took the view that future budget negotiations will provide opportunities to shrink the federal budget.

Other political operatives in the former president’s circle share their assessment. Arthur Schwartz, a Republican political consultant who served as an adviser to Donald Trump Jr., took to Twitter to call Rep. Dan Bishop (R., N.C.), a vocal critic of the deal, a "professional complainer." Former senior Trump administration official Stephen Miller shared defenses of the deal on the platform as well.

Those close to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) say the deal was the best anyone could hope for without control of the Senate or the White House. One adviser to the speaker celebrated it as the first debt ceiling bill in a decade that reduces federal spending, while another senior Capitol Hill staffer pointed to the Congressional Budget Office’s preliminary estimate that if the spending provisions are honored it could cut spending by over $2 trillion.

McCarthy himself defended his bargain with the White House on Sunday, touting the deal as a solid compromise.

"It doesn’t get everything everybody wanted," McCarthy said Sunday evening. "But, in divided government, that’s where we end up. I think it’s a very positive bill."

DeSantis’s allies struck a different tone. No other House Republican has emerged as a more forceful critic of the compromise than Rep. Chip Roy (R., Texas), who called it a "turd sandwich" on Sunday. Roy, who was the first member of Congress to endorse DeSantis in March before the Florida governor announced his candidacy, vowed to fight its passage in the House.

Former vice president Mike Pence also slammed the debt ceiling compromise, saying in a Tuesday statement that it "uses Washington smoke and mirror games to make small reforms while weakening our military at a time of increasing threats from foreign adversaries." Pence, who is thought the be considering a 2024 presidential run, said the bill places "the burden of debt onto the backs of our grandchildren."

A spokesman for DeSantis declined to comment. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

There is also evidence of grassroots discontent over the debt ceiling bill, something the DeSantis campaign hopes to capitalize on as their candidate trails in the polls. Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts blasted it Monday evening as a missed opportunity for Republicans.

"Overall, this agreement would continue America’s trajectory towards economic destruction and expanded federal control," Roberts said in a statement. "House Republicans must go back to the negotiating table and demand more concessions from the Biden administration."

Even with Republican opposition, many expect Congress to pass the bill before the "X date" of June 5, when the United States runs out of borrowing capacity.

Update 2:00 p.m.: This piece has been updated to include a statement from former vice president Mike Pence.