(By Philip Wegmann, RealClear Wire) Nothing happened. Again.
Congressional leaders left the Oval Office after meeting with President Biden Tuesday evening, further entrenched in their original positions and without anything close to an agreement on how the federal government should pay its bills.
They bickered. They agreed to meet again Friday. They accused each other of lying about the situation.
The White House has called on Congress to increase the debt limit without conditions. Led by Speaker Kevin McCarthy, House Republicans did pass a bill to extend the federal borrowing authority but return spending to 2022 levels. The months-long game of “chicken” continues, and without some sort of compromise by either side, the country could default as soon as June 1.
That’s the date by which Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warns the federal government may be unable to meet its financial obligations if Congress does not first raise the debt limit.
“Everybody in this meeting reiterated the positions they were at,” McCarthy told reporters gathered in the White House driveway. “I didn’t see any new movement.”
Standing next to the California Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted that the wrong kind of history was not about to be made. “Let me first make the point: The United States is not going to default,” he said. “It never has, and it never will.” To avoid that fate, McConnell continued, Biden and McCarthy had to come to terms.
“This can only be solved by the one person in America who can sign something into law and by the majority of the opposite party, in divided government,” McConnell said. “Hopefully that’s the direction in which we were headed now, because we’re running out of time.”
Both sides argued again that it was the other who was being irresponsible. This included Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer who dismissed the only legislation to increase the debt limit, the bill passed by House Republicans last month, as a non-starter.
“What’s really troubling about the speaker’s position is, it’s a partisan bill, and he says take it or leave it, or we could default,” Schumer told reporters after McCarthy left the White House. “By not taking default off the table, Speaker McCarthy is gravely endangering America and making it much harder to make progress on budget negotiations.”
The White House has said they are willing to discuss spending cuts but not in relation to the debt limit, though experts note that in recent decades Congress hasn’t managed to achieve major deficit reduction separate from negotiations over the debt limit. The administration’s explanation for their refusal to negotiate as default looms? Congress didn’t force former President Trump into concessions to raise the debt ceiling three times, and they are still haunted by what happened more than a decade ago.
There was a time when Biden was open to negotiations over the debt ceiling. As vice president, Biden helped hammer out a deal to avoid default, but that was at the last minute and isn’t something the administration has any appetite for now. “In 2011, the Obama-Biden administration negotiated in good faith,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said in February, “but congressional Republicans’ recklessness caused a historic blow to our economy.”
And the White House claims, among other things, that the bill passed by House Republicans would eliminate tens of thousands of jobs at Veterans Affairs, allow for fewer Veterans Affairs outpatient visits, and increase the disability backlog for veterans.
The legislation does not target veteran services at all. It only would mandate that government spending in fiscal year 2024 return to the same level as 2022. After the meeting in the Oval Office, McCarthy told RealClearPolitics that the argument from the White House “is a lie.”
“That type of behavior is our political rhetoric,” he said. “So, if one side is going to sit back and say those types of things, all I’m asking is we spend the amount of money we spent five months ago.”
Biden offered his own rebuttal in the Roosevelt Room hours later, saying that the spending cuts had to come from somewhere. “He uses the ‘L’ word, the ‘lying’ word, but says I’m not telling the truth,” the president said during brief remarks.
“All I asked him inside was: If you’re not going to cut any of those programs and you’re saying the cut is 22% across the board, then you’re going to have to cut a hell of a lot more with the programs that are left,” he said. “‘No, we’re not going to do that either,’” he continued, predicting the GOP response. “I’m not sure. I don’t think they’re sure exactly what they’re proposing.”
But while there is no consensus on how to ensure the government doesn’t default, recent joint polling by RealClear Opinion Research and Emerson College suggests an advantage for McCarthy in the debate. “An issue for Democrats is that independents align with Republicans on not raising the debt ceiling,” pollster Spencer Kimball, associate professor at Emerson College, said, adding that their hesitation could stem from “their concern about inflation.”
According to that survey, more independent voters, 46%, believe that the debt ceiling should not be raised than those who say that it should be (29%) – a finding that may pique the interest of lawmakers as the borrowing debate rages on Capitol Hill, especially now as a record number of Americans identify not as Republican or Democrat but as independent of either party.
Biden held out the possibility that he may cancel upcoming travel to stay in Washington and reach a bill. He said that was “unlikely” but “possible.” He suggested that his meeting, his second with congressional leaders, was constructive even if not final. “Three of the four participants were very measured and low key,” the president said. “Occasionally there would be a little bit of an assertion that maybe was a little over the top from the speaker.”