Biden and McCarthy clash over debt ceiling ahead of first big meeting

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WASHINGTON — Ahead of President Joe Biden’s first meeting Wednesday with new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the White House issued two sternly worded demands to the speaker.

In a memo circulated Tuesday, top White House advisers Brian Deese and Shalanda Young said Biden intends to ask McCarthy, R-Calif., to “commit to the bedrock principle that the United States will never default” and to lay out his specific plan to reduce the deficit if he wants to attach it to an extension of the debt ceiling.

McCarthy responded on Twitter: “Mr. President: I received your staff’s memo. I’m not interested in political games. I’m coming to negotiate for the American people.”

Asked about Biden’s demand for his assurances that the U.S. won’t default, McCarthy told reporters Tuesday: “It’s irresponsible to say as the leader of the free world to say he’s not going to negotiate. I hope that’s just his staff and not him.”

At a Democratic National Committee event later Tuesday, Biden criticized McCarthy for making “off-the-wall” promises to fellow Republicans to secure his position.

The public back-and-forth between the Democratic president and Republican speaker suggests that the meeting is unlikely to be fruitful in breaking the stalemate over the biggest item on their mutual to-do list: averting an economically dangerous default ahead of what the Treasury Department says is a June 5 deadline for Congress to act.

Just hours before the meeting, the White House issued a statement doubling down on its aggressive posture against the GOP.

“After months of advocating for slashing Medicare and Social Security benefits, Congressional Republicans owe the American people an answer: will you match President Biden and commit to release your plan for the economy? Yes or no?” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said, adding, "What are House Republicans hiding?”

At a closed-door Republican meeting Wednesday, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, stood up and insisted that GOP leaders get more specific about possible spending cuts, a source familiar with the meeting said. (Crenshaw’s demand was first reported by CNN.)

Biden continues to insist he won’t grant policy concessions to pay the bills Congress has legally imposed on the U.S. McCarthy derides Biden's position as reckless and irresponsible as he faces pressure from GOP hard-liners to use the debt limit deadline as leverage to make the Senate and the White House accept spending cuts. But Republicans haven't said what they want to cut.

The White House's goal in issuing its demands is to expose that the narrow House Republican majority lacks a cohesive plan to reduce spending. Experts say a plan to balance the budget over a 10-year horizon, as some conservatives have called for, would require less spending on the military, Social Security or Medicare — or higher taxes. Republicans are divided on whether and how to target those pots of money (and Democrats are eager to make it politically painful for the GOP if they propose such cuts).

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said Democrats support Biden's refusal to attach policy add-ons to a debt ceiling extension.

“We’re totally unified. They are in a car crash before they even get started,” he said. “They don’t know what their budget is. They don’t know what they’re demanding. They just have this vague notion that this is a place where they’re supposed to make trouble. And it doesn’t work. It won’t work. We’ve learned our lesson from 2011.

“The quicker they understand that they have to solve this problem for themselves, the better off they will be and the better off the country will be,” he said. “There’s not room for negotiation around the debt limit. The debt limit question is about whether or not America pays its bills. And if they want to connect it to any other extraneous item, I’m a no.”

In 2011, then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden negotiated with a GOP-led House on a debt limit package, which faltered and brought the U.S. to the brink of default. They narrowly avoided it, but sources involved in those talks say Obama and Biden came to view the strategy as a mistake and vowed to separate fiscal policy negotiations and the debt limit.

'Like a first date'

Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who met with McCarthy on Tuesday, said the meeting with Biden would be “a get-to-know-you, like a first date.”

Biden and McCarthy come into the meeting with no previous relationship — and vastly different styles.

Biden, who was long known as an old-school moderate, has made it his mission to politically crush the ascendant Donald Trump wing of the Republican Party, which McCarthy has embraced. Biden rose through the ranks in Washington as a deal-making institutionalist, while McCarthy’s rise is largely due to his unique talents as a relationship builder. And there’s a generational gap: McCarthy was 7 years old when Biden was first elected to the Senate.

“It’s probably not going to be a warm and intimate relationship,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said. “I think it’s going to be more transactional. But I think both of them share a view that you can’t breach the debt ceiling. So that’s a start.”

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., said that Biden’s budget is due in March and that Republicans will “work to meet our deadline” on a House budget by April.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said it should be up to Biden to propose a debt ceiling bill that can pass Congress.

“I don’t know why he doesn’t want to do that. I mean, he’s the one who wants to raise the debt ceiling,” Scott said. “He ought to be doing it. He’s the president.

“He’s got the authority to do this on his own, by the way. It’s clear that Treasury Department has a right to make sure we don’t default on our debt,” Scott added.

A Scott spokesperson later clarified that he meant the Treasury Department can prioritize payments to creditors in case the U.S. breaches the limit, not that “Biden can lift the debt ceiling whenever he wants.”

The Biden administration insisted Congress must act to prevent a default on U.S. obligations.

“It’s utterly essential that Congress raise the debt ceiling, and this has been the position of every Treasury secretary from both parties,” a Treasury Department spokesperson said in a statement. “We cannot negotiate over whether or not we’re going to honor our obligations, it’s simply a must that we have to.”

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