WASHINGTON ― Congressional Democrats are watching anxiously from the sidelines as President Joe Biden negotiates with House Republicans on a budget deal that would avoid a harmful default on the nation’s debt early next month.
Biden has expressed openness to the idea of paring back some federal safety net programs, and his allies have acknowledged they will need to make concessions in order to reach an agreement by June 1, the projected date the U.S. is expected to no longer be able to meet its obligations.
The fact that Biden is even in the position of having to negotiate with Republicans over the debt ceiling, something they lifted three times under former President Donald Trump without any fuss, has left progressive lawmakers fuming.
“If Democrats cave to the GOP on work requirements, 1.7 million poor people could lose their healthcare and 275,000 could go hungry. That’s what is at stake. We must stand firm,” tweeted Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) on Thursday, referring to a key GOP demand to add stricter “work requirements” to federal programs that help low-income Americans afford food and health care.
In further sign of angst on the left, 11 Senate Democrats sent a letter to Biden on Thursday urging him to prepare to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally by invoking the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that the public debt “shall not be questioned.” The theory behind their argument is untested and would likely be challenged in the courts, however.
“Republicans’ unwillingness to consider one penny in new revenue from the wealthy and large corporations, along with their diminishment of the disastrous consequences of default have made it seemingly impossible to enact a bipartisan budget deal at this time,” the senators wrote in the letter, questioning House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) ability to pass a deal should one emerge in the coming days.
But there’s rising discontent on the right about the direction of the talks, as well.
On Thursday, the House Freedom Caucus, a group of dozens of hardline conservatives, called for an end to negotiations and for the Senate to simply approve the House GOP’s bill that raised the debt ceiling and sharply slashing spending over the next decade. Their stance implied that they won’t support any bipartisan agreement.
“No more discussion on watering it down. Period,” the group warned in a statement.
“The last thing we need is a repeat of the 2013 deal. It was a terrible deal for the country. I hope we’ve learned from our mistakes.”
It’s possible that the urgent warnings from the left and the right this week are a sign that negotiations between Biden and McCarthy are making progress, and that perhaps a deal is close to materializing. Still, neither side is likely to support an agreement, and their votes may not be ultimately needed to pass one.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has insisted for months that Republicans agree to a “clean” debt ceiling increase that would take default off the table with no strings attached, before negotiating over the budget later this year. On Thursday, however, he said that the only path forward is a bipartisan agreement.
“No one will get everything they want,” Schumer cautioned.
Democrats haven’t always loved Biden’s deals with Republicans, despite his successful track record as president. During a 2019 presidential primary debate, for example, Biden was criticized by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) for making a “terrible deal” with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that staved off a debt default in 2012. As vice president, BIden helped negotiate an agreement that made the bulk of George W. Bush’s tax cuts permanent.
“I don’t know. I hope not,” Bennet told HuffPost on Thursday when asked if he worried about Biden agreeing to a similar deal this time around.
“The last thing we need is a repeat of the 2013 deal. It was a terrible deal for the country. I hope we’ve learned from our mistakes,” he added.
McCarthy claimed one early victory over Democrats this week, bragging that he had gotten them to back off against their stance of not negotiating over the debt limit.
“The president and Leader Schumer have finally backed off their idea that they won’t negotiate,” McCarthy declared at a press conference on Wednesday. “They finally backed off the insane, un-rational, un-sensible idea that you just raise the debt ceiling.”