President Joe Biden and House GOP Speaker Kevin McCarthy sat down for their first one-on-one meeting for over an hour at the White House on Wednesday after weeks of shadowboxing over federal spending and the nation’s borrowing limit.
The sit-down was an initial touching of gloves for both parties in this era of divided government, and the negotiations are likely to continue into the summer. For the moment, Democrats are holding firm that the Republicans shouldn’t hold the debt limit ― as well as the full faith and credit of the U.S. government ― hostage. They noted that Republicans raised the debt limit three times under former President Donald Trump without making such demands.
“President Biden made clear that, as every other leader in both parties in Congress has affirmed, it is their shared duty not to allow an unprecedented and economically catastrophic default,” the White House said in a statement after the meeting. “It is not negotiable or conditional.”
Republicans are demanding major spending cuts to address the debt in exchange for raising the so-called “debt ceiling,” but they are being coy about which programs they’d like to cut. Some have proposed vague across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending, while others have suggested that it is Biden and the White House who should identify spending restrictions.
McCarthy told reporters after the meeting that he and Biden “agreed to continue the conversation” on the debt ceiling.
“We both have different perspectives on this, but I thought this was a good meeting,” he said. “I can see where we can find common ground.”
The federal government is already butting up against the legal limit on how much it can borrow in order to cover expenses. The Treasury Department has estimated that it can keep paying bills until at least June. If Congress doesn’t act, the government would default — an unprecedented scenario that could trigger a financial crisis and a costly recession.
Biden doesn’t have much of a relationship with McCarthy, the California Republican who voted to throw out Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election based on false claims of fraud. Still, speaking at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in New York City on Tuesday, Biden called McCarthy “a decent man” who made “off the wall” promises to Republicans in order to become speaker, including a fight over the debt ceiling.
Biden said he didn’t know “what’s gone haywire here with this Republican Party,” estimating that 30% of the GOP continues to stand with former President Donald Trump even after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Trump, who is seeking another term in the White House in 2024, has urged Republicans to stand firm and use the debt limit to extract maximum concessions from Democrats despite the risk of defaulting on the debt.
In its statement Wednesday, the White House said that Biden remained open to a “separate” discussion with congressional leaders about “how to reduce the deficit and control the national debt while continuing to grow the economy.”
“The President and the Speaker agreed to continue the conversation,” the statement added.