Republicans Rebuff Biden Offers as Debt Talks Bog Down

Republicans Rebuff Biden Offers as Debt Talks Bog Down

McCarthy is at the center of it all.
By Yuval Rosenberg and Michael Rainey
Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Good evening. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis just announced that he’s running for president. As the debt-limit drama continues and election season warms up, tonight we remember the 19 students and two teachers killed one year ago at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. And we mourn the death of iconic singer Tina Turner at age 83.

Here’s the latest on the debt limit talks.

Republicans Rebuff Biden Offers as Debt Talks Bog Down

With a potential U.S. debt default just over a week away, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said late Wednesday that negotiators were making progress toward a deal to raise the federal borrowing limit. But negotiators have offered little indication that they are nearing a deal.

"I think things are going a little better," he told Fox Business after staff-level talks had concluded at the White House for the day, adding that spending levels remain a stumbling block.

McCarthy earlier told reporters that the two sides remain far apart and that fundamental differences over federal spending remained unresolved, even after days of direct negotiations.

The Republican leader has continued to insist that spending levels must come down. "You have to spend less than you spent last year," he said. "That is not that difficult to do. But in Washington, somehow that is a problem."

Biden said early this week that House Republicans would need to move off their "extreme positions" for there to be progress in talks over raising the nation’s debt limit. "It’s time for Republicans to accept that there is no bipartisan deal to be made solely, solely, on their partisan terms," Biden said at a news conference following the G7 Summit in Japan.

McCarthy and his fellow Republicans appear to disagree, publicly refusing to budge on any of their demands. Biden has reportedly offered to freeze spending at 2023 levels, cap spending for two years and rescind unspent Covid funds. Republicans have insisted that spending must be cut in any deal to raise the debt limit. And they have repeatedly sought to pressure Biden to accept most of their demands without offering any concessions beyond a debt-ceiling hike.

When McCarthy was asked Tuesday what concessions he’s making his response was telling: "We’re going to raise the debt ceiling." Republican Reps. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina and Garret Graves of Louisiana, two of McCarthy’s negotiators, also said Tuesday that the GOP concession was raising the debt limit.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that avoiding default should not count as a concession: "We’ve also heard some House Republicans refer to preventing default as the only concession they are willing to make. But preventing a catastrophic default is not a concession. It’s their job. Period."

McCarthy’s stance also reflects the continued pressure he faces from his members, any one of whom can call for his ouster. The House Freedom Caucus has urged Republican leaders to hold fast in negotiations and push for everything in the GOP bill. "It's time for President Biden and Senate Democrats to do theirs and pass the Limit, Save, Grow Act," the group tweeted last week. "No more discussion on watering it down. Period."

And Rep. Chip Roy, a member of the Freedom Caucus, on Wednesday warned Republicans against making concessions in a four-page memo laying out conservative talking points. Roy wrote that the GOP agenda items are all critical "and none should be abandoned solely for the quest of a ‘deal.’"

Democrats worry they’re losing the PR battle: It’s no mystery why Republicans keep hammering the same points and pressing for their priorities. They are clearly feeling their oats, confident that they have the upper hand and can both set the media narrative and dictate the terms of the talks.

McHenry has told reporters that the White House made a strategic mistake by not negotiating earlier.

"McCarthy is speaking to reporters a half-dozen times per day. Graves and McHenry are accessible. The White House negotiators haven’t spoken once to reporters outside the daily briefing," Punchbowl News noted this morning.

Some Democrats are reportedly frustrated by the White House’s messaging on the talks, or lack of it.

For its part, the White House on Wednesday argued again that this is a "manufactured crisis" and pointed to comments by Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida as proof of the GOP’s culpability.

"I think my conservative colleagues for the most part support Limit, Save, Grow, and they don’t feel like we should negotiate with our hostage," Gaetz told Semafor on Tuesday, referring to the legislation passed by the House.

The White House used that remark to accuse House Republican leaders of kowtowing to their far-right members. "They’re saying the quiet thing out loud, referring to the full faith and credit of the United States as a ‘hostage,’" Jean-Pierre said.

Pramila Jayapal, chair of the 102-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, lashed out at Republicans Wednesday at a Capitol Hill news conference. Jayapal argued that only McCarthy would be to blame if the country defaults. She suggested, as Biden and other Democrats have as well, that some in the GOP expect to gain politically from tanking the economy.

"Today the United States is closer to default than we have ever been in our history for one reason and one reason only: that is, extreme Republican recklessness that will crash our economy," she said. "And let me be clear: Republicans have no interest in cutting the deficit. They are willing to crash the economy because they want to continue their extreme tax cuts for the wealthiest corporations and billionaires across the country. And guess what? They want you, working people, to finance those tax cuts for the wealthiest."

Jayapal said the White House had told her that Republicans rejected policy proposals that would have cut the deficit by $3 trillion, including ending $31 billion in tax subsidies to big oil and closing tax loopholes to raise more than $60 billion. Jayapal said the GOP also shot down other tax proposals and rejected raising the number of prescription drugs subject to Medicare price negotiations, which the administration says would save $200 billion.

"There is going to be a moment here, and it’s coming very, very soon, where they will have to make a choice between their constituents and their country and an extreme MAGA Republican hostage-taking that their speaker is leading them into," Jayapal said of Republicans.

She argued that it would only take a handful of Republicans signing on to Democrats’ discharge petition to force a floor vote on a debt-limit increase. House Democrats announced Wednesday that all 213 of their members had signed.

A big fight over a relatively small part of the budget: Jim Tankersley of The New York Times notes that the fight has centered on non-defense discretionary spending, which accounts for less than 15% of the $6.3 trillion that the federal government is expected to spend this year. "It is not outsized, by historical standards. It is already projected to shrink, as a share of the economy, over the next decade," Tankersley writes. "And it has nothing to do with the big drivers of projected spending growth in the coming years: the safety-net programs Social Security and Medicare, which are facing increasingly large payouts as the American population ages."

The fight, in other words, is "almost certain not to produce any agreement with Mr. Biden that would dramatically alter the course of federal spending in the next decade," Tankersley says.

What’s next: The House will recess after its votes on Thursday, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise said, and members will get 24 hours’ notice to return if a debt ceiling deal is reached over the weekend or next week.

Polls Telling Different Stories on the Debt Ceiling

Polling data is sending mixed messages about public attitudes toward the ongoing debt ceiling showdown.

A CNN poll taken May 17-20 suggests that Republicans may be winning the messaging battle on the issue. Sixty percent of poll respondents agreed with the statement, "Congress should only raise the debt ceiling if it cuts pending at the same time." Twenty-four percent agreed with the statement, "Congress should raise the debt ceiling no matter what." Just 15% chose the statement, "Congress should not raise the debt ceiling, and allow the US to default on its debts."

At the same time, however, an NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist survey from May 15-18 found that a majority (52%) of respondents want Congress to raise the debt ceiling before addressing budget issues, while a smaller portion (42%) want lawmakers to combine a debt limit increase with spending cuts.

A third poll from Monmouth clearly backs the Democratic position. "Just 1 in 4 (25%) Americans think the debt ceiling should be tied to negotiations over spending on federal programs, while half (51%) say the two issues should be dealt with separately," the polling group said Wednesday, referring to its May 18-23 survey.

Why the variations? It’s impossible to say for sure, but it’s a complicated issue and people may not have settled on a clear opinion about how Congress should proceed. That complexity compounds an unavoidable issue with all polling efforts, which is that much depends on how a given issue is framed. As NBC News’s Sahil Kapur noted, polling results are often driven by "how you ask the question."

Number of the Day: 25%

Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JPMorgan Chase, said Wednesday that he sees a one in four chance that the U.S. will fail to raise the debt ceiling before the Treasury runs out of cash — the so-called X-date that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned could arrive in early June.

"We still think the most likely outcome is a deal signed into law before the X-date, though we see the odds of passing that date without an increase in the ceiling at around 25% and rising," Feroli wrote in a note to clients.

If the Treasury does run out of money, Feroli expects officials to make principal and interest payments first. "While doing so would avoid a technical default, there would still be several adverse effects, including a likely downgrade of the U.S. credit rating," he wrote.

U.S. ‘Almost Certain’ to Miss Early June Payments Unless Debt Limit Is Raised, Yellen Says

Once again warning that the nation faces serious risks from a potential debt default, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Wednesday that it was "almost certain" that the U.S. would be unable to meet its financial obligations past early June if the debt limit is not raised or suspended in the very near future.

"Treasury and President Biden will face very tough choices if Congress doesn’t act to raise the debt ceiling and if we hit the so-called X-date without that occurring," Yellen said. "There will be some obligations that we will be unable to pay."

Yellen also said that prioritizing payments, which some Republican lawmakers say the Treasury can do easily enough to avoid defaulting on debt payments, would be difficult. "Prioritization is not really something that is operationally feasible," she said, noting that the Treasury system is set up to make payments on time, not to pick and choose which ones to make.

Credit rating threat: If Treasury is forced to make those prioritization decisions, the missed payments could damage the U.S. credit rating – and for a very long time, as The New York Times’s Joe Rennison reports. Officials at Moody’s told Rennison that a default would alter their opinion of the risk inherent in U.S. debt. "Our view is that we would need to reflect that permanently in the rating," said William Foster, the lead analyst for the United States at Moody’s.

S&P Global Ratings — one of the three major credit ratings agencies, which include Moody’s and Fitch Ratings — lowered the U.S. rating in 2011, after another Republican-led showdown over raising the debt limit, knocking the country down to AA+, even though a default was avoided.

John Chambers, who was on the S&P ratings team in 2011, told the Times that the threat of a politically driven default remains in place. "The thing that was most powerful in the 2011 decision was the political setting and that you had a very clear path to default. And it’s still there," he said. "The current debate validates S&P’s decision to cut the rating and leave it there."


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