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Recess starting to feel distant as debt limit deadline nears

Lawmakers concerned about ‘optics’ of leaving Washington before a deal is reached

Senate Minority Whip John Thune says senators are prepared for 'all kinds' of potential scenarios.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune says senators are prepared for 'all kinds' of potential scenarios. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers are beginning to think about changing their plans and staying in Washington in the coming weeks as a standoff over increasing the debt limit bears down.

Members of both parties’ leadership said on Tuesday that plans for the Senate to recess next week and the House to leave town the following week could shift.

These decisions depend in part on the outcome of a White House meeting with President Joe Biden and congressional leaders on Tuesday afternoon, their second sit-down this month in an effort to address the debt limit impasse.

The federal government is expected to run out of enough funds to pay all its bills on time as soon as June 1.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said next week’s recess is “up in the air.”

Senate Minority Whip John Thune said senators are prepared for “all kinds” of scenarios, including being called back to Washington early or a bigger change in plans. If there’s no deal to address the debt limit by this weekend, then next week “the optics and everything else, the stakes get really high,” the South Dakota Republican said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., said during a news conference that he’d expect lawmakers to stay in Washington if needed, although the chamber’s Republican majority would make that call.

“I expect Congress to do our work,” Aguilar said. “None of us are itching to go back home if we have present work to do.”

The short timeline before the possible June 1 “x date” when the government would be unable to pay its bills on time has raised questions about lawmakers leaving Washington as they usually do around Memorial Day. A lack of progress so far in talks between the White House and congressional leaders appears to be adding urgency, particularly given the procedural and political hurdles to moving legislation swiftly through Congress.

Thune said staff meetings that have been going on for about a week include too many people to make real progress. Staff in those meetings “aren’t in a position to be able to say ‘this is in’ or ‘this is out,’ so they need to get the closers in there because time’s a-wasting,” he said.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters Monday the number of negotiators need to be narrowed and he would prefer that he, Biden and their staffs handle talks without other principals.

McCarthy and Thune emphasized the need for a deal by the end of this week if it’s going to make it to Biden’s desk before June 1, given the need to write an agreement into legislative text and time constraints in the House and Senate.

Thune said he expects an agreement to be considered in the House first but a House rule requiring bill text 72 hours before a vote could slow things down. He added that there are procedural hurdles in the Senate, such as possible objections.

Rep. Garret Graves, who’s leading debt limit talks among House Republicans for McCarthy, said a bill could move quickly through the House, citing relatively swift action on a House-passed debt limit bill meant to mark the GOP position.

“The Senate, they take a while to get things done,” the Louisiana Republican said. “I’ll be nice and just leave it at that. And this isn’t going to be an overnight passage through the United States Senate.”

Work requirements ‘red line’

Tuesday afternoon’s White House meeting could shift the negotiations or tone of talks. But ahead of the gathering, some key lawmakers laid out expectations.

McCarthy drew a harder line Tuesday on expanding work requirements for nondisabled individuals enrolled in anti-poverty programs as part of a debt limit agreement. Republicans involved in talks have also listed discretionary spending caps, rescinding unspent pandemic aid and streamlining energy permitting as areas ripe for bipartisanship.

McCarthy said expanding work requirements is popular, citing last month’s Wisconsin ballot question on which four-fifths of state voters said they backed requiring “able-bodied, childless adults” to look for work in order to receive “taxpayer-funded welfare benefits.” He again noted Biden’s past support for work requirements, including his 1996 vote in favor of overhauling welfare programs as a senator.

“So the public wants it, both parties want it,” McCarthy said. “The idea that they want to put us into a default because they will not work with [us] on that is ludicrous to me.”

House Democrats are making clear they aren’t on board with tightening work requirements as part of a debt limit deal, however.

“Speaker McCarthy going to his conference and saying this is his red line is not helpful,” Aguilar said. “This is nothing that Democrats feel is an urgent issue that the American public is concerned about.”

While the immediate focus was on the 3 p.m. meeting at the White House, it wasn’t clear how much progress anyone was really expecting Tuesday. Both sides appeared to have put a pre-set time limit on the meeting, with Biden scheduled to speak at 4:30 p.m. at a celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month, and McCarthy scheduled a news conference back at the Capitol for the same time.

For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been clear he views his presence and that of Democratic leaders on the Hill as extraneous in the talks, arguing that only Biden and McCarthy can cut the deal. 

In a floor speech Tuesday, McConnell said he’s “glad to sit in at the White House to support Speaker McCarthy” at Tuesday’s gathering.

Suzanne Monyak, David Lerman and Mark Burnett contributed to this report.

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