The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Kevin McCarthy aide tasked with defusing the GOP’s debt limit bomb

Dan Meyer, the speaker’s chief of staff, has seen tense budget standoffs before. But the Republican Party has changed since then.

Dan Meyer, center, between former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Meyer served as chief of staff to both men. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
9 min

The cream of the Republican donor world gathered last month at the Conrad Hotel in downtown Washington to raise money for Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), paying at least $50,000 each to dine with the new GOP power brokers in the House.

When McCarthy spoke, he thanked people who had played an instrumental role in his career. But the crowd of bigwigs — corporate executives, elite lobbyists and top Republicans such as Reps. Steve Scalise (La.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) — gave only one standing ovation that night, according to two people in attendance: It was for Dan Meyer, McCarthy’s chief of staff.

Despite more than three decades working in the upper echelons of Republican politics, Meyer, 68, is not a household name. And yet no other person — save McCarthy — is expected to play a more pivotal role this year in trying to steer House Republicans through a series of potentially explosive conflicts with the White House and each other over the nation’s spending and debt, with the fate of the global economy hanging in the balance.

While Capitol Hill waits to see how McCarthy wields power, his most important adviser has already emerged as a source of comfort for those in establishment Washington nervous about the prospect of a U.S. default later this year. Although McCarthy has vowed to “change Washington as we know it today,” he has tapped the consummate insider — a former lobbyist connected to the old Republican guard who is widely respected among Democrats — to lead his office. And that alone has assured many former colleagues on K Street that Republicans will find a way to raise the federal debt limit later this year without triggering an economic crisis, despite warnings from conservatives about the budget fight ahead.

On Jan. 22, members of the House and Senate discussed their approach to debt ceiling negotiations. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

A former top aide to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and President George W. Bush, Meyer is praised by Democrats and Republicans alike for his calm demeanor, vote-counting prowess and mastery of both congressional personalities and arcana. He spent weeks after the 2022 midterm elections assuring skittish Republicans that McCarthy would eventually secure the speaker’s gavel, despite the protracted leadership contest that Meyer helped McCarthy navigate. But today’s GOP could be hard to wrangle even for one of Washington’s most seasoned legislative tacticians.

This account is based on interviews with more than two dozen GOP lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists, operatives, budget analysts and others familiar with internal party dynamics, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private talks.

“Members like to go talk to him. They feel very comfortable just talking to him — don’t feel like they have to talk to me at times,” McCarthy told The Washington Post of Meyer. (Meyer declined to be interviewed.) “They look to him for the knowledge, the past experience. And they know he knows all the different traps.”

Republicans are spoiling for a fight with the Biden administration over the debt ceiling, which limits how much the Treasury Department can borrow to pay for spending Congress has already approved. Failure to lift the limit could lead to the first-ever default on U.S. debt sometime this summer. While McCarthy has said the debt limit must be raised, most House Republicans are adamant that they will not do so without major concessions on spending from Biden — something the White House has repeatedly ruled out. Meanwhile, the conservatives who nearly blocked McCarthy from the speakership could reemerge as a threat to his leadership.

Navigating these political land mines will fall to Meyer, who will face a Republican Party transformed since his time as Gingrich’s chief of staff and his more recent experience as Bush’s top legislative aide.

Gone are almost all of the moderate Republicans whom Meyer leaned on to pass Bush’s controversial bank bailout in 2008 — replaced by an emboldened conservative faction itching for confrontation, and spurred on from the sidelines by former president Donald Trump.

Just nine of the 91 House Republicans who voted for the bailouts are still in Congress. McCarthy and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), now the House majority leader, voted against it. Today’s House Republican lawmakers are making demands on spending that will prove difficult, if not impossible, for McCarthy to reconcile. Meyer has privately confided about the bind created by House Republicans’ contradictory demands on the federal budget and debt, according to one former colleague who spoke with him recently.

“They’re going to embark on a series of listening sessions here to get the center of gravity for the conference,” said Ben Howard, a former McCarthy aide who remains a confidant of the speaker. “And then it’s gonna be Dan and Kevin inside the room for negotiations.”

A Minnesota native who worked as a school bus driver before entering Republican politics, Meyer came to Washington in 1981. He and former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.) ran Gingrich’s successful campaign for House minority whip in 1989, leading Gingrich to hire him away from Weber to be his chief of staff. Several former colleagues said Meyer’s subdued Midwestern style is particularly well-suited for the big egos that dominate Capitol Hill.

“He’s got this way about him that causes members to sit back and respect him. So he’s not what I would call a typical chief of staff,” said John A. Boehner, the former GOP speaker who spoke almost every day to Meyer while Meyer worked for Gingrich. “It’d be more like a mentor, if you will.”

To get scoops, sharp political analysis and accountability journalism in your inbox each morning, sign up for The Early 202.

Meyer would become one of the most powerful staffers in Washington, as Gingrich made him chief of staff after securing the speaker’s gavel in 1995. Sometimes, Meyer was the lone staffer in meetings with President Bill Clinton, Gingrich recalled in an interview. He fortified relationships with Democrats, as well: Pat Griffin, who was Clinton’s legislative affairs director, said he and Meyer had difficult jobs handling complex but high-stakes policy fights while calming their bosses’ tempers. They developed a rare trust, alerting each other privately when one of their bosses was about to launch a rhetorical attack. Meyer was Gingrich’s top aide during the 1995 stalemate over spending that led to a 21-day government shutdown, then the longest in history.

“He played this unique role in helping to manage the speaker’s office and, frankly, manage Newt,” Boehner said.

After the 1996 election, Meyer left the Hill for the Duberstein Group, a prominent lobbying firm, where he stayed for 10 years. He returned to public service as one of Bush’s top congressional liaisons, playing a key role in securing passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as the bank bailouts, by working to persuade Republicans adamantly opposed to spending hundreds of billions of dollars that they should save Wall Street. The bill passed, though with more Democrats supporting it than Republicans.

“He knows the members, the staff, their views, their predilections,” said Henry M. Paulson Jr., who served as treasury secretary in the Bush administration and worked closely with Meyer on the 2008 Wall Street rescue. “He was very good tactically.”

Meyer went back to Duberstein after that — leading Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen, a liberal-leaning public advocacy group, to call him “the very definition of the D.C. revolving door.” He was set to retire in 2019 when McCarthy asked him to be his chief to help win back the majority, as he did with Gingrich in 1994. Meyer agreed to work for McCarthy for two years but remains by his side nearly four years later — even as McCarthy embraced Trump after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, banished Trump critics like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from the party and embraced far-right figures, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). Meyer’s son, Andrew Meyer, worked as Cheney’s legislative director after she was voted out of leadership in 2021. And Trump has repeatedly assailed Meyer’s former boss Bush, most recently for refusing to back his false assertion that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

The party’s demands for spending cuts have also become increasingly outlandish. On a recent private phone call with a longtime colleague after McCarthy was elected speaker, Meyer marveled at the seeming absurdity of his position. As Meyer told his friend, McCarthy is in a nearly impossible bind, having vowed to advance a budget proposal that eradicates the deficit in a decade without touching Medicare and Social Security or increasing taxes.

“He knows it’s tough and that it’s going to be tough,” the colleague said. “The situation he’s in is horrendous.”

But Meyer’s past work in difficult legislative situations leaves even some Democrats optimistic.

“If the Republicans had to be in control, which was not my druthers, I think the fact that Dan Meyer is there is a positive for the country,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who was until recently the No. 2 House Democrat.

So far, conservatives haven’t criticized Meyer, either, despite his ties to the party establishment and long history in Washington. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) declined to comment on Meyer, despite tweeting angrily about McCarthy’s ties to lobbyists during the fight over the speakership. Republican leaders have made some personnel decisions aimed at smoothing things over with their right flank: McCarthy’s budget and tax staffer, Jason Yaworske, previously worked for a lawmaker in the House Freedom Caucus and served in Trump’s Office of Management and Budget. Jason Rogers, now in GOP Whip Tom Emmer’s (R-Minn.) office, worked for conservative firebrand Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.).

The following months will put Meyer’s aptitude managing lawmakers to the test. The Minnesotan is a constant but understated presence in the Capitol, often standing in the back of the House chamber, accessible and approachable for members.

And Meyer has a skill — critical in a crisis — that McCarthy lacks, some lawmakers said.

“Kevin doesn’t like to tell people ‘no,’” said Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio). “Dan tells you things you don’t want to hear.”