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White House meeting delayed amid staff talks on budget, debt

Speaker Kevin McCarthy says it wouldn’t have been productive to meet again so soon

South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds says there’s something to the idea of extending deadlines until after the 2024 elections.
South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds says there’s something to the idea of extending deadlines until after the 2024 elections. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Joe Biden and the top four congressional leaders will skip a planned Friday meeting and instead get together early next week to discuss the debt limit and budget process, a White House spokesperson confirmed.

White House and congressional leadership staff will continue to meet in the interim, and a source familiar with the talks described the delay as a positive development.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters the principals agreed that there hadn’t been enough progress in the talks yet to warrant the Friday meeting but he expects it to occur next week.

“We didn’t think it was going to be productive,” the California Republican said, adding that one of the leaders has a funeral to attend Friday and wouldn’t be able to make it anyway. 

Senior aides including Louisa Terrell, Biden’s top legislative liaison, and Dan Meyer, McCarthy’s chief of staff, met for roughly two hours each on Wednesday and Thursday. Staff were tight-lipped leaving Thursday’s meeting, shortly before The Washington Post reported on the delay of Friday’s expected principals meeting at the White House.

McCarthy wouldn’t go so far as to call the staff talks thus far productive. “If these were staff meetings happening on Feb. 1, I’d call them productive,” he said. McCarthy and other congressional leaders met with Biden at the White House on Tuesday, which was the first time he’d met with the president on the topic since Feb. 1.

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has given lawmakers until June 1 to lift the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling, after which agency officials aren’t confident they’ll be able to pay all the nation’s bills as they come due. Private sector forecasters believe Treasury probably has about a week of extra breathing room, but one misstep could mean a delay in the Social Security checks scheduled to go out June 2, for instance.

The two parties’ leaders have been trying to get on the same page about what’s on the table and find a middle ground between two opposing stances. The Democrats want a “clean” debt limit increase, preferably through the 2024 elections, while House Republicans’ bill would raise the limit until the first quarter of next year while extracting some $4.8 trillion in deficit reduction.

“The ground in the middle is to take your finger off the default detonator and discuss this as part of the appropriations process,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Thursday.

Bifurcated process

While the GOP bill is a nonstarter with the White House and top Democrats, negotiators are trying to figure out a way to give both sides a win, perhaps with some sort of bifurcated process that delinks the debt limit from the budget talks that are happening now.

Aides have been discussing spending caps for fiscal 2024 appropriations and potentially for another year or more, as well as other items tacked onto the House bill.

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., whom McCarthy tapped to help stitch together a GOP majority for their debt limit bill last month, told reporters Thursday that spending caps, energy project permitting, rescinding unspent pandemic aid and tighter work requirements for safety net programs were all ripe for compromise.

Democrats have rejected the House GOP’s proposed appropriations topline of $1.47 trillion for next year, which is the level appropriated for fiscal 2022, and have rejected work requirement provisions affecting beneficiaries of programs like Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and food stamps. But bipartisan talks are underway in the Senate on energy infrastructure permit streamlining, and Biden himself has said he’s open to recouping unspent COVID-19 relief.

Republicans generally are preparing for a final agreement that falls short of what the House GOP passed last month. But McCarthy needs to prevent heavy losses among conservative House members in order to shore up his speakership from threats lodged against him earlier this year, when it took 15 ballots for him to get elected.

“If he loses three Republicans and picks up three Democrats, that may be it,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said Thursday. “But what I’m saying is Speaker McCarthy has to make that decision. We can’t make it.”

The duration of a spending caps deal has been linked to the length of a debt limit increase or suspension in past talks, and some on both sides see the logic in punting both until after the 2024 elections. 

“I think there would be an interest in having a debt ceiling discussion and a [spending] cap that could get us past this next general election,” Rounds said.

But Graves said Republicans don’t necessarily want to link the two issues and then get blamed by Democrats for “MAGA” proposals threatening both a default and a government shutdown simultaneously. Spending caps would cover the appropriations bills that need to become law by Sept. 30, without which the government would have to partially cease operations.

Some Democrats are skeptical that any deal can be reached in the short amount of time left before the “x date” for default, however, and say that Republicans should just agree to a clean increase for now.

“This is the most dysfunctional caucus that I have seen in my entire political career. The idea that [Republicans] could negotiate anything is just a fantasy,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said Thursday. “At some point, you have to gauge whether a negotiation is possible based upon your partner, and our partner here is in a daily meltdown.”

Aidan Quigley and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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