Washington DC, May 22, 2023 — President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy are set to meet at the White House at a pivotal moment as Washington works to strike a budget compromise and raise the nation’s borrowing limit in time to avert a devastating federal default.
The meeting Monday afternoon between the Democratic president and the new Republican speaker will be critical as they race to prevent a looming debt crisis. After a weekend of start-stop talks, both men appeared upbeat as they face a deadline, as soon as June 1, when the government could run out of cash to pay its bills.
Biden and McCarthy spoke by phone Sunday while the president was returning home on Air Force One after the Group of Seven summit in Japan. “It went well, we’ll talk tomorrow,” Biden said in response to a shouted question upon his return late Sunday.
The call revived talks and negotiators met for 2 1/2 hours at the Capitol late Sunday evening, saying little as they left. Financial markets turned down last week after talks stalled.
McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters earlier Sunday that the call with Biden was “productive” and that the on-again, off-again negotiations between his staff and White House representatives are focused on spending cuts.
Biden told a press conference before departing from Japan: “I think that we can reach an agreement.”
The contours of an agreement appear within reach, and the negotiations have narrowed on a 2024 budget year cap that would be key to resolving the standoff. Republicans have insisted next year’s spending cannot be more than current 2023 levels, but Democrats have refused to accept the steeper cuts McCarthy’s team first proposed.
A budget deal would unlock a separate vote to lift the debt ceiling, now $31 trillion, to allow more borrowing to pay bills already incurred bills. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Sunday that June 1 is a “hard deadline.”
“We’ll keep working,” said Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, as the White House team exited talks late Sunday.
McCarthy said after his call with Biden that “I think we can solve some of these problems if he understands what we’re looking at.” The speaker added, “But I’ve been very clear to him from the very beginning. We have to spend less money than we spent last year.”
McCarthy emerged from that conversation sounding optimistic and was careful not to criticize Biden’s trip, as he had before. He did caution, “There’s no agreement on anything.”
Earlier, Biden used his concluding news conference in Hiroshima, Japan, to warn House Republicans that they must move off their “extreme positions” over raising the debt limit and that there would be no agreement to avoid a catastrophic default only on their terms.
Biden said “it’s time for Republicans to accept that there is no deal to be made solely, solely, on their partisan terms.” He said he had done his part in attempting to raise the borrowing limit so the government can keep paying its bills, by agreeing to significant cuts in spending. “Now it’s time for the other side to move from their extreme position.”
GOP lawmakers have been holding tight to demands for sharp spending cuts with caps on future spending, rejecting the alternatives proposed by the White House for reducing deficits in part with revenue from taxes.
Republicans want to roll back next year’s spending to 2022 levels, but the White House has proposed keeping 2024 the same as it is now, in the 2023 budget year. Republicans initially sought to impose spending caps for 10 years, though the latest proposal narrowed that to about six. The White House wants a two-year budget deal.
A compromise on those topline spending levels would enable McCarthy to deliver for conservatives, while not being so severe that it would chase off the Democratic votes that would be needed in the divided Congress to pass any bill.
Republicans also want work requirements on the Medicaid health care program, though the Biden administration has countered that millions of people could lose coverage. The GOP additionally introduced new cuts to food aid by restricting states’ ability to waive work requirements in places with high joblessness. But Democrats have said any changes to work requirements for government aid recipients are nonstarters.
GOP lawmakers are also seeking cuts in IRS money and, by sparing Defense and Veterans accounts from reductions, would shift the bulk of spending reductions to other federal programs.
The White House has countered by keeping defense and nondefense spending flat next year, which would save $90 billion in the 2024 budget year and $1 trillion over 10 years.
All sides have been eyeing the potential for the package to include a framework that would speed energy project developments.
And despite a push by Republicans for the White House to accept parts of their proposed immigration overhaul, McCarthy indicated the focus was on the House’s previously approved debt and budget package.
Republicans had also rejected various White House revenue proposals, with McCarthy insisting personally in his conversations to Biden that tax hikes are off the table.
For months, Biden had refused to engage in talks over the debt limit, contending that Republicans in Congress were trying to use the borrowing limit vote as leverage to extract administration concessions on other policy priorities.
But with the June 1 potential deadline looming and Republicans putting their own legislation on the table, the White House launched talks on a budget deal that could accompany an increase in the debt limit.
McCarthy faces a hard-right flank that is likely to reject any deal, which has led some Democrats encouraging Biden to resist any compromise with the Republicans and simply raise the debt ceiling on his own to avoid default.
The president, though, said he was ruling out the possibility, for now, of invoking the 14th Amendment as a solution, saying it’s an “unresolved” legal question that would become tied up in the courts. – AP