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Biden blasts House GOP for trying to ‘destroy’ economy over debt ceiling

Speaking in Virginia, the president touted his agenda — and new economic indicators showing growth — as he promised to veto GOP legislation

President Biden speaks in Springfield, Va., on Thursday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
8 min

President Biden sharply rebuked House Republicans on Thursday for trying to slash seniors’ retirement benefits and hold hostage the nation’s finances, stressing that the new majority’s agenda — and its staunch demands for spending cuts — threatened to plunge the United States into an economic crisis.

On a day when the administration received a burst of positive news, with the nation’s economic growth exceeding expectations last quarter, Biden took to a union facility in Springfield, Va., to highlight the political stakes: Pointing to the country’s recent turnaround, the president stressed a need to battle back GOP lawmakers “who are trying to destroy this progress.”

“This nation has gone through too much. We’ve come too far to let that happen,” Biden said, promising to “veto everything” Republicans try to send to his desk.

The president’s speech marked the latest in a series of escalating attacks on House Republicans, who assumed control of the chamber in January on a promise to serve as a bulwark against the administration. GOP lawmakers in turn blamed the president for what they see as reckless spending, arguing it has contributed to the country’s elevated prices for homes, groceries and other consumer goods.

“Unless Congress can get a handle on its spending problem, the American people worry the economy will not deliver for them,” Rep. Jason T. Smith (R-Mo.), chairman of the tax-focused House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement Thursday. Citing rising interest rates and their financial consequences for Americans’ jobs and expenses, he added, “Americans have made clear that the status quo in Washington is unacceptable.”

But the two parties’ ongoing war of words took on greater significance Thursday against the backdrop of an emerging political crisis: Congress must act as soon as this summer to raise the debt ceiling, which allows the government to borrow to pay its bills. Absent a resolution, the United States could experience a historic fiscal calamity, plunged potentially into another economic downturn not even three years after it recovered from the last one.

In response, Biden on Thursday again called on Republicans to raise or suspend the borrowing cap, stressing he is unwilling to negotiate over one of the country’s most important fiscal obligations. But GOP lawmakers — seizing on the deadline as leverage in their search for billions of dollars in spending cuts — maintained instead that the president should come to the table and strike a deal.

“I will not let anyone use the full faith and credit of the United States as a bargaining chip,” Biden said. “In the United States of America, we pay our debts.”

The public sniping evinced the widening chasm between the two parties in a time of fiercely divided government. And it set the stage for a tense sit-down between Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who are expected to gather for a wide-ranging meeting at the White House perhaps later this month.

Appearing onstage in Virginia, Biden began by calling attention to economic indicators released earlier Thursday, which showed gross domestic product last quarter rose at an annual rate of 2.9 percent, while the nation’s unemployment remained low — even despite high-profile layoffs, including at major tech companies. The upbeat report followed weeks after the government reported inflation in December had slowed yet still remains high.

The president attributed much of those gains to his economic agenda, reflecting on the two-year anniversary of his inauguration last week. He pointed to legislative accomplishments over the first two years of his term, including the adoption of a bipartisan law to improve the nation’s infrastructure and other measures to lower health-care costs, combat climate change and improve the domestic manufacturing of computer chips.

“At the time I was sworn in, the pandemic was raging and the economy was reeling,” Biden said.

In doing so, Biden attacked the GOP for its legislative efforts since assuming the majority. That included Republicans’ early suggestions that lawmakers might examine the finances of Social Security and Medicare as part of their broader commitment to cut spending, balance the budget and address the nation’s fiscal health.

“They want to cut your Social Security and Medicare,” Biden said. “It’s almost unbelievable.”

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Republicans sharply rejected Biden’s accusations. While some in the party have eyed special panels recently to study federal entitlement programs — and in the past have proposed raising the retirement age for younger Americans — GOP lawmakers also said they never endorsed changes to seniors’ existing benefits.

“Their go-to position … is to fearmonger senior citizens about essential benefits being stripped from them. No one on this side of the aisle is talking about that,” stressed Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, which has advocated deep spending cuts.

Biden also swiped at Republicans for weighing legislation that would essentially erase much of the tax code and eliminate the Internal Revenue Service, replacing the system instead with a 30 percent national sales tax. “That’s the only way millionaires and billionaires have to pay any taxes,” the president said, as he sought to make the case the poorest Americans would be affected by such a policy.

In recent days, top Republicans — including McCarthy — have sought to distance themselves from the proposal. But its chief sponsor, Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.), maintained Thursday that the sales tax is “an idea whose time has come,” adding that people “would rather have control on how they want to spend their money.”

“When you start draining the swamp, people get upset,” he said.

And Biden took aim in his speech at Republicans for trying to “raise your gas prices,” a comment that came as the House prepared to vote on a GOP bill that would limit the president’s authority to release oil from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). The White House tapped this national stockpile repeatedly last summer in a bid to bring down energy prices, responding to rising costs made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — yet Republicans contend that Biden abused his powers.

“The SPR should be used as a tool of last resort,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), its chief sponsor, said in a speech on the House floor. She said Biden tapped the oil reserve to “cover up historically high prices in an election year,” adding her legislation would ensure the stockpile “will not be drained away for non-emergency political purposes.”

But the political quarreling — hardly abnormal in a persistently divided Washington — threatened to carry lasting implications for the high-stakes fight over the debt ceiling.

Democrats and Republicans already face a fast-ticking clock, after the Treasury Department started taking what it terms “extraordinary measures” this month to forestall a government default. The Biden administration believes it has until at least early June to raise or suspend the country’s borrowing cap, before the government risks a default that could carry global economic ramifications.

“They’re actually threatening to have us default on the American debt, the debt that’s been accumulated over 230 years,” Biden said Thursday. “We’ve never, ever done that.”

Republicans, however, have faulted the White House this week for sounding urgent alarms about the dangers. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the leader of the GOP’s top campaign arm in the chamber, hammered the administration Thursday for offering fiscal doomsday scenarios — “biblical plagues that Moses will flinch at,” he said — all the while rejecting GOP demands for talks.

“If you dare disagree with them, you’re the problem,” he said.

Both parties have enacted laws that have added to the nation’s debt, totaling more than $31 trillion. That includes ordinary government programs as well as tax cuts adopted under President Donald Trump in 2017, a series of bipartisan coronavirus aid packages and trillions of dollars in spending toward Biden’s economic agenda.

Repeatedly, though, Republicans voted to suspend the limit under Trump — often with the aid of Democrats who disliked his policies. Yet GOP lawmakers quickly refused to provide similar support once they assumed control of the House this January, demanding instead that the Biden administration come to the table on a broader spending deal.

In exchange for their votes, Republicans have signaled they could try to pare back spending to the levels adopted in fiscal 2022. That could result in massive cuts, potentially exceeding $130 billion and predominantly affecting federal health, education, labor and other domestic programs. Others in the party sought to cap costs for key domestic agencies over the next decade, reprising an approach lawmakers last took in 2011, when an earlier Republican-led standoff over the debt pushed the United States to the fiscal brink.

But Republicans have not identified specific cuts or offered explicit demands to the White House, drawing condemnation earlier Thursday from Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Taking to the chamber floor to open debate, he faulted the GOP for “saber-rattling about the debt” and making “grandiose statements without any specifics.”

“Until we get a clear answer from House Republicans about what their plan is,” Schumer later added, “there’s no point in speculating about anything else.”