House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he saw potential “common ground” after meeting privately with President Biden for more than an hour Wednesday to kick off talks aimed at averting a potentially catastrophic default on the national debt.
The encounter probably marks the earliest stage of a messy political back-and-forth between the White House and Republicans over the federal debt ceiling. Every other debt-limit crisis has been resolved before a default on payments to U.S. bondholders — sometimes at the last minute, and often after months of finger-pointing and rejected proposals. But these talks could prove more intractable than even the 2011 and 2013 showdowns between the GOP and the Obama administration, with many obstacles to a deal emerging as the president and House speaker begin to negotiate.
Wednesday’s meeting, though, could set the parameters for future talks.
Biden said he would release his budget March 9 and urged McCarthy to do the same, while also reminding the speaker that Republicans routinely raised the debt limit without conditions during the Trump administration, according to one person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.
The White House said in a statement that Biden thinks lawmakers should have separate negotiations about reducing the national debt while also emphasizing that congressional leaders have an obligation to ensure the debt limit is raised. Biden and McCarthy also had a “frank and straightforward” conversation, the statement said.
“We both laid out some of our vision of where we want to get to,” McCarthy said. “I can see where we can find common ground.”
Despite the positive tone, McCarthy emphasized that he views the growing federal debt as the “greatest threat to America.” Republicans have said they are determined to use talks around raising the borrowing cap to rein in the federal debt, while White House aides have ruled out concessions they say could reward the GOP for threatening the nation’s economic health.
The risks of the standoff were emphasized by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell at a news briefing on Wednesday, in which he emphasized that Congress must raise the debt limit. “No one should assume that the Fed can protect the economy from the consequences of failing to act in a timely manner,” Powell told reporters. “There’s only one way forward here and it’s for Congress to raise the debt ceiling. … Any deviations from that path would be highly risky.”
Lawmakers probably have until sometime this summer to raise the debt ceiling, which sets a statutory maximum on how much the federal government can borrow. The current limit is $31.4 trillion, which the United States has already hit. The Treasury Department has started “extraordinary measures” to move money around to allow the government to meet its payment obligations. But those measures could be exhausted by early June, according to Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, and failure to authorize additional borrowing to meet spending obligations Congress has already ordered could lead to an unprecedented default that upends the U.S. and global economies.
Despite the high stakes, expectations for Wednesday’s discussions between McCarthy and Biden were low, with both parties appearing to dig in on their public messages ahead of the talks. On Tuesday, the White House released a memo that hammered the GOP for failing to release a spending plan and challenged McCarthy to “commit to the bedrock principle that the United States will never default on its financial obligations.” Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, stepped up their criticisms this week of Biden for ruling out substantive policy concessions or spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit.
The incentives for both sides suggest progress toward an agreement could be elusive. McCarthy, who struggled to quell an insurrection among House conservatives before securing the speakership, is under pressure from the right and former president Donald Trump to demonstrate his willingness to use the debt limit to extract concessions from the White House. And Biden, after seeing his party expand its Senate majority last year in successful midterm elections, has both substantive and political reasons not to agree to a deal that would depress the Democratic base and cut federal programs that millions of Americans rely on.
Those dynamics have left some observers pessimistic, despite the looming threat of a default that economists say could wipe out millions of jobs.
“I am hoping the two sides don’t go in and just restate their talking points to one another in a way that brings us back to square one,” said Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank. “The negotiations have to start with the sides actually talking to each other.”
Ahead of the meeting, House and Senate Democrats this week sought to project a united front, joining with Biden in calling on the GOP to release its proposed budget. Democrats have blasted the GOP for failing to articulate what it wants in exchange for raising the debt limit, an issue that has divided the Republican caucus. Democrats have expressed optimism that the GOP’s hard-line demands on the debt limit could collapse under the weight of their infighting over what concessions to pursue and the stakes involved in failing to act.
Such a spending blueprint — which Republicans have promised will balance the federal ledger in 10 years — is expected in April.
“We want to know what Republicans value, and we want to know how they’ll protect Social Security and Medicare,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said during a news conference Tuesday. “Our belief is that they’re going to have a tough time defending that, if they can even pass a budget out of committee.”
Republicans have said they are hoping to use the meeting to underscore their belief that the White House cannot maintain its refusal to negotiate concessions over the debt limit. GOP officials have weighed pushing for caps on domestic spending, excluding Social Security and Medicare, or returning domestic spending to their levels in 2019 or 2022, according to three GOP policy analysts who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal talks. Other GOP lawmakers have sought to use the talks to cut Social Security and Medicare, although McCarthy has said that idea is “off the table.”
GOP lawmakers met Wednesday morning to educate members about the debt limit and the potential consequences of a default. Even as they remain divided on what to ask of the White House, House Republicans coalesced around the demand that the White House release a budget and agree to negotiations aimed at reducing the federal debt.
Talking to reporters outside the White House on Wednesday afternoon, McCarthy floated the possibility of a two-year spending deal that would also lift the debt limit. McCarthy also appeared to throw cold water on an idea floated by some centrists of a bipartisan commission designed to recommend future spending cuts to Congress.
“Next week, we’re going to be really hammering out the details,” Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) said. “But one thing we do have consensus on is Biden is abdicating his duty by refusing to negotiate. … We’re on track for what we’re supposed to be doing.”
In the Senate, top Republicans stood with McCarthy in demanding Biden come to the table on spending cuts.
At the GOP’s weekly news conference, Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.) on Tuesday lamented the debt, which exceeds $31 trillion, and blamed Democrats — “a single party in two years doing massive amounts of spending” — even though the debt ceiling was suspended three times under Trump without much controversy.
“The question is, how do we responsibly deal with the debt ceiling at a time of irresponsible spending by the Democrats?” Barrasso said. “We’re not going to default on the debt. We need to find a way, though, to tie together raising the debt ceiling with changes and reforms in reining in our spending.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, said he didn’t have “any concern” about the prospect of a default or downgrade to the country’s credit. “It’s not unprecedented to have a conversation about spending in connection with the debt ceiling,” said McConnell, noting the “deal has to be cut” between McCarthy and Biden to have a “chance to survive over here.”
“So we’re all behind Kevin,” McConnell said.
Last week, 24 other Senate Republicans formalized some of those demands in a letter to Biden, expressing what they described as “outright opposition to a debt-ceiling hike without real structural spending reform” that reduces the deficit. They demanded spending cuts “equal or greater” in amount to any debt-ceiling increase, noting they do not intend to vote for it otherwise.
Still, any curbs on federal spending will be difficult for the White House to accept, because they could establish the precedent that the GOP can use the debt-limit issue to demand policy changes.
“If McCarthy goes in there and says, ‘I need these big cuts,’ Biden will just say, ‘Okay, do you have something serious?’” said Dean Baker, an ally of the White House and an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank. “The big question in all this: Is this all for show? Or does McCarthy have something in mind that will actually get this resolved?”