Biden: I'll meet with McCarthy — but not on debt limit

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President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he is open to meeting again with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — but would not give in to the Republican’s demand for negotiations on the debt limit.

“Happy to meet with McCarthy,” Biden said at the end of a brief press conference at the White House. “But not on whether or not the debt limit gets extended. That’s not negotiable.”

The president’s stance reflects the White House’s continued skepticism that McCarthy will be able to keep Republicans united behind a single set of demands, even after the speaker narrowly passed a debt ceiling bill he has cast as the GOP’s opening bid in the high-stakes standoff.

“We’re not going to negotiate on the debt ceiling — that is a separate matter,” a White
House official said, adding that the bill’s passage would likely lead to future talks with Republican leaders, but not alter Biden’s stance on the debt ceiling.

“Obviously,” the official said, “we want to talk about the budget.”

While the president’s position hasn’t changed – he has consistently said he won’t negotiate on the debt limit — Wednesday’s successful House vote will put pressure on the White House to re-engage. The 217-215 vote advanced a package that consists of deep spending cuts and provisions rolling back some of Biden’s key legislative accomplishments.

But McCarthy's dayslong scramble to lock down the support needed to pass what is effectively a messaging bill — a process that required a suite of last-minute alterations — has emboldened the White House to stick to its rigid position that Congress pass a clean debt ceiling increase.

"I don't think this gets you any closer to a resolution," said one adviser to the White House. "If anything, it reinforces how weak [McCarthy] is."

McCarthy in a press conference following the vote called for Biden to open talks on the debt ceiling, warning it would be the president’s fault if the economy ended up in "trouble."

"You said at the very beginning we had to show you a plan," he said. "Not only did we show you a plan, we're the only ones who passed a plan."

The speaker also issued an ultimatum of his own: "No clean debt ceiling is going to pass the House," McCarthy said.

The debt ceiling stalemate has unnerved some Democrats in Congress, who worry that the two sides have gotten no closer to a resolution in the nearly three months since Biden first met with McCarthy and as financial experts warn that lawmakers may only have until June to avert default. Shortly after the bill passed, three moderate Democrats — Reps. Jared Golden, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez and Mary Peltola — sent a letter to Biden and McCarthy pleading with them to start talks.

“It is time to engage in good faith negotiation that would lead to a resolution and prevent a replay of the 2011 standoff,” they wrote.

But the party remains solidly behind Biden’s bid to separate the debt ceiling from broader budget negotiations.

“It is completely appropriate for Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate, to debate and discuss our spending levels,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally. “It is not appropriate to use the loaded gun of default to coerce a particular menu of cuts.”

Senate Democrats have made clear that they won’t take up the GOP debt limit bill if it passes the House, with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) calling it a “wasted effort” that would “bring us dangerously closer to defaulting.”

Biden officials, meanwhile, are preparing to ramp up attacks on the swing-district Republicans who back the House GOP bill, accusing them of taking a toxic vote that will prove deeply unpopular with voters.

“They’re going to vote to literally undercut the new investments in the last couple months in their own districts,” the White House official said. “Good luck.”

Still, Biden allies said there is recognition that the president will need to jumpstart talks soon on the broader budget — and show that he’s open to working with Republicans, even if he sticks to his demand of a clean debt ceiling.

“It’s important for him to meet with the speaker, but he has to be very clear on what we will and will not do,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.)

White House aides have discussed the potential for a meeting with Republican leaders, but no final decisions have been made on whether and when one will occur. The official cautioned that any meeting would likely not be one-on-one; rather, Biden would seek talks with the top four House and Senate leaders, and potentially top appropriators as well.

“The president's been very clear: There's the debt ceiling and then there is government funding, the two of them cannot come together,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the top Democratic appropriator in the House. “I don't see any reason to believe that he would back off of that.”

Biden and McCarthy have not talked about the budget or the debt ceiling since early February, when they met at the White House for a sit-down that both sides characterized as cordial but, ultimately, unproductive.

Since then, Biden has called for House Republicans to put out a detailed budget before he'd be willing to meet again.

The GOP is now unlikely to craft a full budget proposal of their own. But with time ticking and the threat of default rising, the White House indicated McCarthy’s bill may be close enough.

“It’s not a real budget,” the White House official said. “But they’ve now put forward a plan.”