“We know the stakes are high. That a clash is brewing, people say, between the president and I,” said House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in the Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol.
Such a stark warning uttered in such frank language forced those in attendance to sit up straight and pay rapt attention to what the speaker might say.
“What would be the ramifications for the entire nation in the coming months?” asked McCarthy.
The speaker was right. There well could be a confrontation between McCarthy and President Biden in the coming months over the debt ceiling. Such a tilt could dictate McCarthy’s future as speaker. That’s to say nothing of a potential default by the U.S. A prospective fiscal crisis unrivaled since 2008 – if not 1929. There’s the real possibility of a market crash.
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McCarthy then gestured toward Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who sat next to Biden at a nearby table.
“I think you might be able to settle this for us,” said the speaker to Varadkar. “Which of us is more Irish?”
McCarthy’s verbal feint about the pending clash was all in good fun at the annual “Friends of Ireland” lunch at the Capitol. It takes place every St. Patrick’s Day. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., launched the Irish fete – punctuated by cabbage, corned beef, soda bread and Guinness – with President Ronald Reagan four decades ago. O’Neill and Reagan were both of Irish heritage. The meal offered a way for the duo to meet up and bridge some political divides over a dram of Jameson and salute the Irish leader.
The Capitol luncheon yields an interesting byproduct. The Irish prime minister is the only world leader guaranteed an annual audience with both the president of the United States and the speaker of the House.
And, the best thing about the annual lunch at Capitol is reporters get to practice saying and spelling the word “Taoiseach.”
The Taoiseach is the leader of the Irish government. Other political systems might refer to this position as “prime ,inister.” Translated, the word means “chief.” The Irish houses of parliament – Dail Eireann and Oireachtas – nominate the Taoiseach.
America’s “balance of power” government lacks a singular “Taoiseach.” That’s why leaders like the president and speaker of the House must periodically get together on a range of subjects.
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Be it Ireland. Or, the debt ceiling.
St. Patrick’s Day is in the rearview mirror. So put aside what the special conclave has to do with shamrocks and leprechauns. The frivolity around the Irish dancing and everyone walking around the Capitol with a sprig of clover pale in comparison to the real goal of the luncheon. The summit really has everything to do with the coin of the realm in getting things done – whether in Washington, Dublin or Belfast: relationships
Everyone is watching to see what Biden and McCarthy do about the debt ceiling. The duo hadn’t been in the same room together since they huddled at the White House Feb. 1 on the debt limit. That was their first session since McCarthy prevailed in the speaker’s race in early January.
The St. Patrick’s Day meeting is amplified when some of the principals have ancestral ties to Ireland, like former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. There was always a joke about President “O’Bama” being Irish. But it’s different with two Irishmen in Biden and McCarthy. Especially when the stakes are so high.
No one expected the leaders to settle anything on the debt ceiling during their White House meeting last month. And certainly not at the luncheon. But these convocations can help leaders find common ground. Plus, Biden and McCarthy will probably need more than the luck of the Irish to avert a catastrophic default.
“It’s a pleasure be sat next to the speaker and the president. Not to keep the peace. But rather to thank them for doing so much for Ireland,” said Varadkar at the lunch.
Four decades ago, Reagan and O’Neill used the Friends of Ireland lunch to smooth over their disputes. To be fair, Reagan and O’Neill perpetually scrapped about policy priorities. Their barbs were occasionally personal. But the duo developed a mutual respect. They conceded it was important to show the public they could get along, despite their disparate, passionate views. Having a relationship made it easier for the legislative and executive branches of American government to function for the good of the nation.
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“Mr. Speaker, I’m grateful you have permitted me in the past and I hope in the future that singular honor. The honor of calling me my friend,” said Reagan at a dinner honoring O’Neill on St. Patrick’s Day in 1986.
“The president and I often don’t see eye to eye,” said O’Neill shortly after the president’s remarks. “We have our little squabbles.”
However, O’Neill said he and Reagan would stop their political fighting at 6 p.m. and chat like friends, “swapping an Irish story or two.”
“I want to tell you how much I admire your ability. Your talent. The way you handle the American people,” said O’Neill.
Those breakthroughs help amid chasms of difference.
Former Representative Pete King, R-N.Y., helped organize the Friends of Ireland lunch when he was in Congress. King spoke of how the annual gathering was paramount to finalizing the Good Friday Accord, which halted decades of violence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.
“These were serious, serious negotiations going on, which literally were matters of life and death,” said King. “President Clinton would meet with all of the Irish religious leaders. For political reasons and maybe security reasons, they could not meet with each other in Northern Ireland.”
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A debt ceiling calamity is serious. So was the sectarian fighting in Northern Ireland. That’s why King says the St. Patrick’s Day luncheon is really about something more important than beer and green ties.
“It can only help the relationship between Kevin (McCarthy) and the president,” said King. “So while it may be unrelated to the debt ceiling, at the same time, it can bring down a lot of the tension.”
So, forging an alliance, even behind closed doors, is up to the president and the speaker.
“There’s no reason we can’t find common ground. There’s no reason why we can’t hope to change the direction the extremes of our parties are pushing,” said Biden during his luncheon remarks.
When Biden returned to his seat next to the speaker, McCarthy whispered, “Good job.”
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It took years for the sides to finally craft a deal which calmed the violence in Northern Ireland – partly facilitated through the Friends of Ireland lunch.
But when it comes to the debt ceiling, Biden and the McCarthy don’t have that long. They only have a few months to find a solution.
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