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No longer a ‘broken record,’ White House throws a few elbows with debt messaging

But House Republican seen as key to a deal has been spared

Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, has been increasingly critical of conservative House Republicans in recent days.
Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary, has been increasingly critical of conservative House Republicans in recent days. (Tom WIlliams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — “Congress must act.”

That has been the daily refrain on raising the debt ceiling for months from White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. In fact, she warned reporters earlier this month she sounded like a “broken record” after saying three times during a May 2 briefing that “Congress must act,” a phrase she has repeated over and over since.

That changed this week as the country careened toward a federal debt default that could occur, shy of a deal, on or around June 1.

Without naming Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Jean-Pierre on Thursday criticized House Republicans for “what Republicans themselves say is a hostage-taking.”

She was indirectly addressing a comment Gaetz made to Semafor on Tuesday, referring to the bill the House passed imposing budget cuts before talks began with Democrats. Gaetz said: “My conservative colleagues for the most part support ‘limit, save, grow,’ and they don’t feel like we should negotiate with our hostage.”

Jean-Pierre had notably critical words for the conservative House Freedom Caucus on Thursday, telling reporters “you heard them argue against preventing default.”

“That’s actually in violation of what the speaker has … said he wants to do. He said this week, when it comes to default, it’s off the table,” she added, referring to Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif..

Jean-Pierre on Wednesday accused House Republicans of “threatening” what she said would be an “economic catastrophe.”

“So, look, the president will be … wherever he needs to be to secure a reasonable bipartisan deal to prevent … this manufactured crisis,” the press secretary said.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates went after the same conservative faction that temporarily blocked McCarthy’s speakership bid, in a May 20 statement: “President Biden will not accept a wishlist of extreme MAGA priorities that would punish the middle class and neediest Americans and set our economic progress back.”

Jean-Pierre came to the briefing room Wednesday with charts displayed on a television screen behind her lectern. On one slide were the faces of several House Republicans. The topic of the slide was not the debt talks, but some of the faces on the screen were from members who have criticized the president over spending.

“Will Marjorie Taylor Greene, who had $183,000 of her own business loans forgiven, vote to deny debt relief to the 92,000 student borrowers she represents?” Jean-Pierre said of the Georgia Republican over GOP opposition to President Joe Biden’s student debt relief plan.

“Will Rep. Vern Buchanan, who had over $2.3 million of business loans forgiven, vote to deny student debt relief for 95,000 of his own constituents?” she asked of the Florida Republican. The two and every other House Republican, plus two Democrats, did vote later that day for a resolution, which the White House said Biden would veto if it reaches him, to block forgiveness of up to $20,000 in student debt.

Greene earlier this week cast the borrowing limit as “Joe Biden’s debt ceiling,” telling Steve Bannon’s “War Room” program that the president is “the one who can’t come to the table and get it done.”

The sharper, more personal tone also has been on display in the White House press staff’s regular blast statements to the press corps.

“It is appalling and revealing to, for perceived political benefit, support triggering an unprecedented economic downturn that would kill 8 million jobs, send retirement accounts into a tailspin, jeopardize Social Security, help China overtake us in the global economy, and throw our military under the bus,” Bates said in a Thursday statement sent to reporters.

“Regardless of how liberal or conservative leaders are, their highest priorities must be protecting America’s national security and the livelihoods of American families,” Bates added. “They have a duty to never undermine either for any reason. These horrifying remarks explicitly wish an historic catastrophe on the entire country — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.”

Bates was responding to this assessment from Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel about the politics of a potential default.

“This is a president that is failing the American people,” she said during a Fox News interview Wednesday. “So I think that bodes very well for the Republican field.”

Bates said that McDaniel “just told the American people that causing unemployment, bankruptcies and the obliteration retirement dreams is worth scoring the cheapest political points imaginable; that she’s willing to sell our future out to China in the name of self-serving political greed.”

Asked specifically about the apparent shift to a more aggressive tone, another White House spokesman on Thursday declined to comment. “We’ve been clear for months what the risks are and contrasting our vision,” he said in an email.

But one House Republican has been spared the sharpest of the White House elbow-throwing. It is the same one Biden and his top aides still think a deal runs through: Speaker McCarthy.

‘In good faith’

Jean-Pierre on Thursday noticeably soft-pedaled her response when asked about McCarthy chatting this week with Donald Trump about the ongoing debt talks. The former president, during a May 10 televised town hall, endorsed a default — and has since urged House GOP negotiators to hold the line.

“Republicans should not make a deal on the debt ceiling unless they get everything they want,” Trump wrote on his social site last week. “Do not fold!!!”

Asked about the McCarthy-Trump chat, Jean-Pierre nodded and allowed a small smile to show before saying: “The speaker is free to speak to whoever he chooses.”

Jean-Pierre also declined to place McCarthy in the group she and the president have increasingly blamed for the debt and spending impasse: “extreme MAGA Republicans.”

“We are working with … McCarthy and his team, in good faith,” she said.

A few moments later, while announcing his pick to serve as the country’s top military general, Biden did note he and McCarthy have major differences on federal spending priorities. The speaker and others in his party want any spending cuts to “fall on the backs of hardworking, middle-class Americans.”

But his criticism of the man the White House sees as the key to a deal ended there, with Biden noting several times he and the speaker — when they have negotiated one-on-one — have had “productive” talks.

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