Capitol Correspondence - 05.23.23

Talks Enter Crucial Phase on the Debt Ceiling

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US Capitol Building in background with black metal fencing that surrounds the capitol dome in the foreground.
Photo credit Patrick Semansky/AP Photo
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As the nation inches closer to the debt ceiling deadline, President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met once again in an effort to reach a deal that would prevent the United States from defaulting on its debt for the first time in history. The meeting, which took place on Monday at 5:30 pm EDT, followed a weekend marked by a lack of progress in the negotiations. Both sides have been engaged in discussions, but key sticking points remain.

Negotiations between the White House and the House GOP hit a snag last Friday, prompting a temporary pause. Over the next two days, representatives from each side took the opportunity to criticize one another’s positions while defending their own. However, there are signs of a possible thaw in the negotiations. President Biden and Speaker McCarthy spoke over the phone, and McCarthy described the call as “productive.” This positive development follows President Biden’s earlier criticisms of Republicans during a news conference in Hiroshima, where he expressed concerns about the possibility of an outrageous action leading to a default.

While setbacks in high-stakes negotiations on Capitol Hill are not uncommon, the weekend-long snag underscores the challenge of finding consensus between the two sides. Time is running out, as the Treasury Department has warned that the US could default as soon as June 1. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen reiterated this warning on Sunday, emphasizing the potential for a global economic catastrophe if a deal is not reached.

The path forward is still uncertain. House Republicans are pushing for spending cuts in the federal budget as a condition for raising the debt ceiling. President Biden acknowledged significant disagreement with Republicans on this issue but expressed his willingness to reduce spending. He also noted that tax revenue is not off the table as part of the deal, which contrasts with the Republicans’ insistence on spending reductions.

Some areas of potential agreement have emerged during the negotiations. House Republicans have outlined four areas where they believe consensus is possible: revising the permitting process, rescinding unspent COVID-19 relief funds, strengthening work requirements for government aid programs, and implementing spending caps. However, Democrats have raised concerns about the extent of spending reductions being proposed by Republicans.

Work requirements have become a particularly contentious issue. Democrats have voiced reservations about the enhanced work requirements for social safety net programs proposed by Republicans. President Biden has made it clear that he will not put consequential work requirements on the negotiating table. Another point of contention is the length of the debt limit extension. Democrats are pushing for a minimum two-year extension to avoid revisiting the issue before the 2024 elections.

The road ahead remains challenging. Even if a deal is reached, there will be significant obstacles to overcome in successfully passing it in both the House and the Senate. Crafting legislative text can be a complex process, with lawmakers and staff delving into intricate policy details that can lead to further issues over the fine print. Additionally, securing the necessary votes for passage will be no easy task, given the narrow majorities in both chambers.

With time rapidly running out before the June 1 deadline, all eyes were on the meeting between President Biden and congressional leaders on Monday. The outcome of these negotiations will have far-reaching implications for the nation’s financial stability.

Reports following the Biden-McCarthy meeting described it as “respectful” but no significant breakthroughs were reported. Negotiators representing both sides met until late into the evening. “We’re getting closer” McCarthy said during his evening press conference.