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White House defends Biden’s travel to Japan amid debt talks

Itinerary changes to postpone trips to Papua New Guinea, Australia

House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., speaks during a news conference with House and Senate Republicans on Wednesday.
House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., speaks during a news conference with House and Senate Republicans on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden is set to land in Japan Thursday for meetings with fellow G-7 leaders, on a trip to the Pacific truncated by the pressing debt limit deadline back home.

Biden decided to continue with scheduled travel to Hiroshima, Japan, with plans to return to the United States on Sunday. He postponed what would have been a historic stop in Papua New Guinea, as well as travel to Australia for meetings of the nations known as the Quad. The leaders of those countries — Australia, India, Japan and the United States — were already going to be together as part of the G-7.

Still, Republicans on Capitol Hill were saying Wednesday that the president should not have left the country at all.

House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York complained that, “with only 15 days until the June 1 deadline, Joe Biden is jetting off to Asia.”

“Whether it’s the border crisis, the energy crisis, or this debt crisis, Joe Biden continues to run away …from each crisis that his policies have created,” Stefanik said at a press conference flanked by other GOP members of the House and Senate.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, asked Thursday about the prospects of staff-led negotiations on budgetary questions and averting a default, said it remains “doable” but he added criticism of the president’s schedule, saying, “I really want a president that’s engaged and working.”

“The speaker put us in this position, right? Let’s not forget, he put us in a position where he is taking the American economy hostage,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One to Japan. “We are looking at a situation where America could potentially default … on paying their bills, which is something that we have never done before.”

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, also disputed the suggestion that China will be the beneficiary of Biden not continuing his onward travel beyond Japan.

“We feel extremely good about where America’s position is in the Indo-Pacific, and the fact that he has to postpone a trip to Australia and to Papua New Guinea, when you lay that up against where we are with respect to our alliances and partnerships … we believe that this notion that somehow the PRC is sitting there happy and comfortable about the situation is a convenient media narrative going into this trip, but it does not reflect reality in any way,” Sullivan said.

The visit to Papua New Guinea would have been the first by a U.S. president to the country, and a public holiday was declared for Biden’s now-postponed travel.

“I know it would have been everyone’s desire for the trip to continue on in its original format. Sometimes there are external factors out of our control,” State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said Wednesday. “But that being said, our commitment to the Quad, our commitment to our Australian partners, our commitment to the Pacific … all those things do not change.”

As for the G-7 meetings themselves, Sullivan said that topics to be discussed include clean energy programs and semiconductor supply chains, as well as a new announcement of sanctions on the U.S. side related to Ukraine.

“The war in Ukraine, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looms large,” Sullivan said. “There will be discussions about the state of play on the battlefield, there will be discussions about the state of play on sanctions and the steps that the G-7 will collectively commit to on enforcement, in particular.”

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