The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

McCarthy thinks he can find ‘responsible’ way to raise debt ceiling

The House speaker will meet Biden on Wednesday and said he is looking for unspecified cuts to the federal budget

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks during a news conference outside his office at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
6 min

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that he will meet with President Biden on Wednesday and is looking for a deal to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for unspecified cuts to the federal budget.

“I want to find a reasonable and responsible way that we can lift the debt ceiling but take control of this runaway spending,” McCarthy said during an interview Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

McCarthy said cuts to Social Security and Medicare were “off the table” but did not rule out cuts to defense spending, which some Republicans in his caucus have resisted.

The comment comes amid a protracted and increasingly public fight between the newly elevated Republican House speaker, the White House and Democrats in the Senate over raising the country’s $31.4 trillion debt limit, which is expected to be reached sometime in June.

The White House confirmed in a statement that McCarthy and Biden will meet on Wednesday “for a discussion on a range of issues.”

But the White House statement signaled that the two men were not close to reaching a deal. Biden “will ask what the Speaker’s plan is,” according to the statement, which added that the first bill passed by the Republican House, to eliminate funding for hiring new employees at the Internal Revenue Service, would add to the nation’s deficit. Biden will also ask McCarthy “if he intends to meet his Constitutional obligation to prevent a national default,” according to the statement.

Biden said on Thursday in Virginia that the country’s recent economic gains would be at risk because of Republican opposition to raising the debt ceiling.

“What in God’s name would the Americans give up the progress we’ve made for the chaos they’re suggesting?” Biden asked. Moments later, he added, “I will veto everything they send me. Not after all the progress we’ve made and how far we’ve come.”

“In the United States of America, we pay our debts,” he said.

Also this month, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen wrote a letter to McCarthy saying that a default could cause “irreparable harm to the U.S. economy.”

Not raising the debt limit, according to economists, could cause the United States to default, sparking a major panic on Wall Street and leading to millions of job losses.

“Look,” McCarthy said Sunday, “we’re not going to default.” Before the borrowing limit is reached in June, McCarthy said, “the responsible thing to do is sit down like two adults and start having that discussion.”

McCarthy did not offer specifics about where he thought cuts should be made, other than to reference “waste” in government and say that reductions in defense spending should be considered.

“I want to make sure we’re protected in our defense spending, but make sure it’s effective and efficient,” McCarthy said. “I want to look at every dollar no matter where it’s being spent,” he added. “You’re going to tell me inside defense there’s no waste, others?”

It’s the first major showdown since Republicans won control of the House in the 2022 midterms. McCarthy was elected speaker by House Republicans this month but only after he agreed to concessions to a bloc of hard-line conservative members in his caucus. That deal included agreements on committee assignments, spending cuts and restoring the motion-to-vacate rule, which allows anyone to call a vote to oust McCarthy as speaker.

Referring to the motion to vacate, McCarthy said, “I don’t have any fear in that.”

McCarthy also defended his decision to place far-right Republicans on a variety of committees, while seeking to remove three Democrats from the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees for what he said were their problematic behaviors.

“Yeah, they’re my choices, but they’re the conference choices,” McCarthy said when asked about putting election deniers in the Republican caucus in charge of House committees. “These are members who just got elected by their constituents, and we put them into committees and I’m proud to do it.”

McCarthy also defended putting Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) on a new committee to investigate the origin of the coronavirus. In a 2021 vote, 11 Republicans joined with Democrats in the majority to remove Greene from her committee assignments over her racist and antisemitic rhetoric, embrace of conspiracy theories and endorsing violence against Democratic lawmakers.

“You look at all of it so you have the questions out there,” McCarthy said.

“You think these are legitimate questions?” Margaret Brennan, host of “Face the Nation,” asked.

“I think what the American public wants to see is an open dialogue in the process,” McCarthy replied. “This is a select committee where people can have all the questions they want and you’ll see the outcome.”

The three House Democrats targeted for removal — Intelligence Committee members Adam B. Schiff (Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (Calif.), and Foreign Affairs committee member Ilhan Omar (Minn.) — appeared together on CNN.

Referring to far-right members in McCarthy’s conference, Schiff said: “The only real explanation is, he needs Marjorie Taylor Greene’s vote. He needs Paul A. Gosar’s vote.”

Republicans have said Schiff should be removed for saying there was proof former president Donald Trump colluded with Russians, which was not directly stated in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report.

GOP members are targeting Swalwell for what they say is his past connection to an alleged Chinese spy, even though federal officials who investigated the matter found no wrongdoing. And Omar is being targeted by Republicans over comments she made that are regarded as antisemitic. Omar has apologized for the remarks.

Omar, who immigrated from Somalia with her parents when she was 12, accused Republicans of racism in targeting her for removal.

“I might have used words at the time that I didn’t understand were trafficking in antisemitism,” Omar said, contending that she has learned from that experience. But removing her from the committee, she said, “is wrong, and it is politically motivated.”

She noted that shortly after she was sworn in, Greene complained about Muslims infiltrating Congress. Omar said McCarthy defended or excused that type of behavior.

“These people are okay with Islamophobia. They’re okay with trafficking in their own ways, in antisemitism,” she said. “They are not okay with having a Muslim have a voice on that committee.”