WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden maintains that he won’t negotiate over the federal government’s obligation to pay its bills.
But Biden met this week with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and their staff have also been meeting. So it’s clear some sort of negotiation is happening behind closed doors.
Still – a White House aide insisted Friday that Biden is negotiating only on the federal budget, separately from the much more urgent question of raising the “debt ceiling” so that the federal government can avoid defaulting on its debts next month.
Ultimately, it may only be a semantic difference as chatter grows about a potential deal involving spending cuts, reclaimed COVID funds, and energy-permitting reforms. Moreover, while the government’s borrowing authority is projected to expire as soon as June 1, lawmakers must fund government agencies by Sept. 30, meaning the White House can plausibly point to the later deadline as the subject of negotiations.
The idea that Biden can negotiate over federal spending but not the debt ceiling ― even though the two things are inextricably linked in Republicans’ minds ― is an example of the rhetorical artifice that the debt ceiling routinely inspires.
In 2021, for example, Senate Republicans created a special exemption to filibuster rules that allowed Democrats to lift the debt ceiling by a simple majority vote – without any spending cuts. That way, Republicans could claim their hands were clean because they only voted for the rules, not the debt limit itself.
Some close observers of the process — namely Republican members of Congress — think a broad negotiation might actually be underway.
“They’re clearly negotiating now,” Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) said.
“As long as people are talking and as long as the parties are at the table, then there’s a chance we can get a deal,” added Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas).
In recent days, Biden has talked up the need to lift the debt ceiling while also addressing the growing budget deficit, using language that would seem to suggest an area of compromise.
“We should be cutting spending and lowering the deficit without a needless crisis, in a responsible way,” Biden said Thursday at an event in New York, citing his proposals to cut wasteful spending on tax subsidies to the oil and gas industry.
White House officials also acknowledged they must accept some spending cuts or limits on the growth of future spending if they are to strike a deal with the GOP-controlled House, according to Reuters.
A decision on how long to extend the government’s borrowing authority could also determine the size of the spending cuts Biden would have to swallow. To keep the debt limit off the table until after the 2024 presidential election would likely take the biggest single debt limit hike ever.
One clear red line Democrats are drawing is around Biden’s signature climate legislation, passed last year on party-line. House Republicans approved a bill that gutted the program while raising the debt ceiling, which Democrats consider a nonstarter.
“Look, we recognize that Republicans have objections about certain policies, certain spending, certain investments. We do not agree with them, but these discussions are a normal part of the budget process that both sides have engaged in for a long time,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a Thursday press conference, urging Republicans to take the threat of default off the table before negotiations over the budget.
Staffers from the White House and McCarthy’s office huddled Thursday and Friday, and Biden and McCarthy plan to meet again next week. Still, McCarthy has sounded like he’s not getting the negotiation he wanted right now.
“In whatever talks we have, you can tell right then he doesn’t want a deal. He wants a default,” McCarthy insisted to reporters on Thursday.
There are also big questions about McCarthy’s ability to deliver the votes to pass a budget deal, should one materialize in the coming weeks. Several hardliners in his caucus have vowed not to support any legislation that includes smaller spending cuts than those in their proposal.
Rank-and-file Democrats, meanwhile, are backing Biden’s negotiating strategy. While no one is using the word “cave,” Democrats seem wary about potential spending cuts, including to federal safety net programs, as part of the parallel negotiations on the debt ceiling and the federal budget.
In a Thursday evening letter to the White House, a group of Democrats led by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) praised Biden for his aggressive budget stance rejecting Republican “work requirement” proposals for federal food and health care programs – and urged him to stick to his guns.
“We support negotiations for Congress to pass a clean debt ceiling and separately reach a budget agreement that does not undermine the social safety net programs that our communities need,” Lee wrote in the letter, which was co-signed by the chairs of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“The president’s position is we’ve got to raise the debt ceiling,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told HuffPost. “If you want to discuss separately, the conversation about what the budget looks like… go ahead, but the two things can’t be tied together.”
Democrats haven’t always loved Biden’s deals with Republicans, despite his successful track record as president. For example, during debt limit negotiations in 2012, then-Vice President Joe Biden helped negotiate an agreement with Mitch McConnell that made the bulk of George W. Bush’s tax cuts permanent.
“The deal that he talked about with Mitch McConnell was a complete victory for the tea party,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Co.) said at a 2019 Democratic presidential primary debate after Biden touted his negotiating skills with Republicans. “That was a great deal for Mitch McConnell. It was a terrible deal for Americans.”