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McCarthy: No Movement on Debt Ceiling in Biden Meeting



Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, listen as President Biden speaks before a meeting to discuss the debt limit in the Oval Office on Tuesday, May 9, 2023. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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WASHINGTON — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday after meeting with President Joe Biden and Democratic congressional leaders that he “didn’t see any new movement” toward ending a months-long impasse over raising the nation’s borrowing limit. But he said they would reconvene Friday in hopes of averting a potential U.S. default by the federal government.

Lawmakers and their staffs were to continue separate discussions as soon as Tuesday evening on the annual federal budget at Biden’s encouragement, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said, as Democrats signaled openness to some spending cuts as long as they were disconnected from the threat of default.

“I asked the president this simple question, Does he not believe there’s any place we could find savings,” McCarthy told reporters outside the White House. “All I’m asking is that we spend the amount of money we spent five months ago.”

The high-stakes Oval Office sitdown ended without any visible breakthroughs, with the government at risk of being unable to meet its obligations as soon as June 1, raising the specter of economic chaos.

Republicans came to the White House hoping to negotiate sweeping cuts to federal spending in exchange for allowing new borrowing to avoid default. Biden, on the other hand, reinforced his opposition to allowing the country’s full faith and credit to be held “hostage” to negotiations — while affirming his willingness to hold talks on the budget only after default is no longer a threat.

As the president welcomed McCarthy, Jeffries, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Oval Office for just over an hour, he quipped to reporters, “We’re going to get started, solve all the world’s problems.”

There seemed to be at least a bit of daylight between McConnell, who has let his House counterpart take the lead in negotiations and backed him up ahead of the White House meeting, and McCarthy.

The Senate leader categorically said, “The United States is not going to default. It never has and it never will.” The speaker, though, simply said, “I’ve done everything in my power to make sure we will not default.”

Democrats Say There is Room to “Come Together”

Democrats said there is room to “come together” on spending cuts as part of the budget process, but quickly jumped on McCarthy’s refusal to rule out the possibility of default, with Schumer saying the Republican is “greatly endangering America.”

“To use the risk of default, with all the dangers that has for the American people as a hostage and say it’s my way or no way, are mostly my way or no way, is dangerous,” Schumer said.

McCarthy said Biden had directed their staffs to continue discussions, and that the leaders themselves would convene again in person on Friday.

Before the White House meeting, both McCarthy and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insisted it would be simple to avert default — if only the other side capitulated.

Chasm Between Republicans and Democrats

The chasm between these opposite postures is fomenting uncertainty that is roiling financial markets and threatens to turn into a tidal wave that swamps the country’s economy. The meeting was timed to begin after U.S. financial markets closed for the day.

McCarthy said Tuesday that a federal debt deal is needed by next week if Washington is to meet the June 1 deadline, and he said he saw no reason why both sides couldn’t come to an agreement quickly over Republican ideas for cutting spending in exchange for raising the debt limit.

“I don’t think it’s that difficult,” McCarthy told reporters at the U.S. Capitol.

Biden and the Democrats don’t see it that way. The president is insisting that raising the debt limit is nonnegotiable, with spending restraints addressed separately as part of the annual budget process.

House Republicans recently passed a sweeping bill to slash spending, an opening offer in negotiations. But that legislation has no chance in the Democratic Senate and the White House has threatened to veto it.

Referring to the House bill, McCarthy said, “We both said default is not an option — but only one of us took action.”

Expectations for a breakthrough on Tuesday had been low.

Default, officials say, would have sweeping impacts, threatening to disrupt Social Security payments to retirees, destabilize global markets and tilt the nation into a potentially debilitating recession.

Biden Speech Planned

Already looking past the meeting, Biden on Wednesday is to go to Westchester County, New York, where he plans to deliver a speech on how proposed spending cuts approved by House Republicans could hurt teachers, older adults needing food aid and veterans seeking health care.

It’s part of a broader campaign by Biden to try to paint the Republican cuts as draconian. Aides believe that message both strengthens his position in talks with the GOP and boosts his nascent 2024 reelection effort. His Wednesday visit will be to a congressional district won by Biden in 2020 but now represented by a Republican, Rep. Mike Lawler.

Though Biden is traveling to the area to lambaste House Republicans, Lawler said in an interview Tuesday that he accepted the invite from the White House — “maybe to their surprise” — to appear alongside the president at Westchester Community College.

“He’s coming to my district, specifically to talk about the most pressing issue,” Lawler said.

Because the House Republican bill does not specifically spell out which federal programs would be cut, Democrats have gone on offense warning of steep hits to popular programs. The Democratic-aligned group House Majority Forward announced a $1 million campaign Tuesday amplifying such cuts, while the House Republicans’ campaign committee countered with its own effort portraying Democrats as “addicted to spending.”

While calling for a “clean” increase to the debt limit, Biden has said he is open to discussion about how to reduce the federal deficit. His budget plan would trim deficits by nearly $3 trillion over a decade, mainly through tax increases on the wealthy and changes such as letting the government negotiate over prescription drug prices.

By contrast, the bill that passed the House with Republican votes would achieve $4.5 trillion in deficit savings through cuts in spending, eliminating tax breaks for investing in clean energy, and reversing Biden’s plans to reduce the burdens of student loan debt.

The Business Community Calls for a Deal to Be Struck

While the financial markets have started to show some jitters, the business community has thus far largely avoided backing either side in the showdown and instead called for a deal to be struck.

“Securing a bipartisan path forward to raise the debt ceiling could not be more urgent,” said Josh Bolten, the head of the Business Roundtable, a group that represents CEOs. “The cost of a default, or even the threat of a default, is simply too high.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce suggested its own priorities for a swift deal Tuesday, saying “there are no two better places to start than permitting reform and an agreement on spending caps.”

Biden’s Refusal to Negotiate

Biden’s refusal to negotiate on the debt limit is informed by his first-hand experience in 2011, when he was Barack Obama’s vice president and the administration made painful concessions to Republicans in an effort to avoid default. Biden has told aides it’s an experience he refuses to repeat, not just for himself, but for future presidents.

“There is no Plan B,” Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of the National Economic Council at the White House, told CNN on Monday. “Our plan is for Congress to act to address the debt limit, without conditions.”

Notably, though, the administration has not ruled out a short-term increase in the debt limit that would align the deadline to increase federal borrowing authority with the talks on government spending that must be resolved by Sept. 30.

Though memories of the 2011 debt-limit standoff — which also featured a Democratic president and a Republican speaker — remain fresh in minds across Washington, aides to McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, have started to point to another, more recent battle as a more instructive example.

In 2019, then-President Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi, the newly reinstalled Democratic House speaker, reached a broader fiscal deal that not only raised the nation’s borrowing authority for two years but staved off automatic budget cuts that both parties deplored.

McConnell implored Trump at the time to negotiate directly with Pelosi and House Democrats, aides said — and the two parties were able to push off the prospect of a debt default beyond Trump’s presidency despite political turmoil elsewhere.

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