Joe Biden, Kevin McCarthy ramp up debt limit negotiations after ‘productive’ White House summit

Joe Biden, Kevin McCarthy ramp up debt limit negotiations after 'productive' White House summit

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Biden said debt-limit talks Monday night were “productive” but failed to deliver a deal, as both sides race to agree on cutting spending and raising the nation’s borrowing limit against a default deadline nine days away.  

Mr. McCarthy emerged from the hour-long talks at the White House to say that negotiators for House Republicans and the administration would “work through the night.” 

“They’re going to come back together,” said Mr. McCarthy, California Republican. “The president and I know the deadline, I think the president and I are going to talk every day until we get this done.”

While both sides want an agreement, Mr. McCarthy said, “There’s nothing agreed to. Everything’s being talked about.”

The president said both sides “reiterated once again that default is off the table and the only way to move forward is in good faith toward a bipartisan agreement.” Mr. Biden said in a statement that there are still “areas of disagreement,” but negotiators will keep talking.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said that if the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling is not raised by Congress by June 1, the government may be unable to pay all of its bills. Mr. McCarthy is ruling out the notion of passing a short-term extension, however.

“If it’s a short-term extension, I think the country looks at it like somehow we failed, that we can’t do the job we’re supposed to do,” he said.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Patrick McHenry, North Carolina Republican who is one of the negotiators, said the areas of disagreement remain “sticky.”

“The middle ground here is something that’s not acceptable to either party,” he told reporters at the White House.

Despite the urgency, the Senate is out on recess and will not return until after Memorial Day. While Senate Democrats could cut their break short, it still takes nearly a week for legislation to move through the chamber.

House rules also specify that legislation needs to be public for at least 72 hours before it can be brought up for a vote. Mr. McCarthy said he was unwilling to waive the rule, which was a demand of conservative hardliners in exchange for elevating him to the speakership earlier this year.  

“I’m not going to be afraid of what the agreement comes out to in the end,” said Mr. McCarthy. “I would give everybody 72 hours so everybody knows what they’re voting for.”

The White House meeting was the first in-person session between the speaker and the president since Mr. Biden left Washington last week for a meeting with G7 leaders in Japan. During Mr. Biden’s absence, talks broke down several times between administration staff and House Republicans over spending cuts sought by the GOP.

Mr. McCarthy said the breakdown is due in part to the White House’s unwillingness to cut spending immediately. Republicans are pushing for at least $130 billion in the upcoming budget, which at least half could come from rescinding unspent coronavirus funds.

“The president’s budget wants to spend more money than we spent at the height of COVID,” said Mr. McCarthy. “We shouldn’t do that.”

The White House is proposing to keep domestic and defense spending flat for the upcoming fiscal year. They argue that would still amount to a spending cut because of inflation.

Negotiators are floating the prospect of a compromise that adjusts last year’s government spending levels for inflation, then capping spending growth at 1% for the next two years.

“We have to be in a position where we can sell it to our constituency,” said Mr. Biden. “We have a pretty well-divided House, almost down the middle and it’s not any different in the Senate.”

House Republicans are pushing for immediate spending cuts in the upcoming budget and at least 10 years’ worth of spending caps. They have specified the spending cuts will have to come from domestic spending, as GOP lawmakers simultaneously want to boost funding for defense, border security, and veterans benefits

Mr. Biden is proposing raising taxes on the wealthy by closing tax loopholes, rather than slashing spending on domestic programs.

“We’ve agreed we need to reduce the deficit .. and we need to cut spending,” said Mr. Biden. “I think we should be looking at tax loopholes and making sure the wealthy pay their fair share. I think revenue matters as long as you’re not taxing anybody [making] under $400,000.”

Republicans say tax hikes are a non-starter, especially given inflation and other economic uncertainties.  

“We’re already in a challenge where they raised so much inflation, based upon their spending — that would be a stupid thing to do,” said Mr. McCarthy.

Outside of spending cuts, there are also divisions over expanding welfare work requirements.

House Republicans want to impose requirements that able-bodied and childless recipients of Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance work at least 20 hours per week. They are also proposing restrictions on the ability of states and the federal government to waive work requirements for food stamps.

While Mr. Biden has opened the door to expanding work requirements on recipients of direct cash payments through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the savings would be minuscule. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that expanded work requirements on TANF recipients would only save $6 million through 2033.

Even that is too much for some Democrats. The nearly 50-member Congressional Black Caucus is threatening to vote against any work requirements on welfare.

“The Congressional Black Caucus has no intention of allowing families to go hungry to appease Republicans,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, Nevada Democrat. “It’s a recipe for expanding racial and gender disparities, which seems to be their modus operandi.”

Backing up the CBC’s opposition to new work requirements is the more than-90 member Congressional Progressive Caucus. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Washington Democrat and chairwoman of the liberal caucus, has repeatedly stressed that imposing work requirements is a “non-starter.”

Like the president, Mr. McCarthy faces pressure from his right flank to not compromise.

The more than 40-member House Freedom Caucus, which nearly tanked Mr. McCarthy‘s speakership bid earlier this year, has called for a suspension of negotiations. Rather than negotiate, the conservative group said, Mr. McCarthy should push for the wholesale adoption of the debt limit legislation that House Republicans passed last month.

“This legislation is the official position of the House Freedom Caucus and, by its passage with 217 votes, the entire House Republican Conference,” the group said in a statement. “There should be no further discussion until the Senate passes the legislation.”

The GOP bill would cut spending by $4.8 trillion while capping spending growth at 1% over the next decade. Apart from expanding work requirements, it would also cancel Mr. Biden’s student loan forgiveness program and more than $200 billion in green energy tax credits.

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