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Of course President Biden negotiated on the debt ceiling

A spending deal was the only magic key that unlocked a way around a default

President Joe Biden  shakes hands with Speaker Kevin McCarthy before delivering the State of the Union address on Feb. 7.
President Joe Biden shakes hands with Speaker Kevin McCarthy before delivering the State of the Union address on Feb. 7. (CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden and top Democratic leaders said they would not negotiate on the debt ceiling. But of course they did.

House Republicans left them no choice.

Biden and top aides for weeks contended the president’s hand-picked negotiators were not talking to their House GOP counterparts about raising the debt ceiling. Rather, they said, the talks would focus on a spending deal to set up the regular appropriations process with concessions and wins for both sides.

The problem with that claim was simple: Without the spending deal, the country would default. It was the magic key that would unlock a debt ceiling hike.

Some top Democrats — but not Biden — this week finally began saying the quiet part out loud.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries tried defending what White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre described in a May 2 statement as “a separate process to address the budget and appropriations.”

“I think President Biden and Democrats in the House and Senate were very clear that we were going to proceed on parallel tracks from the very beginning,” Jeffries told reporters Wednesday.

But he also described the White House-Democratic strategy in a way that made clear the “parallel tracks” were never Track B and Track C but the connected rails of Track A.

“And parallel tracks meant, for us, that we would avoid default and that whatever resolution occurred relative to the spending side of the equation, related to the appropriations process, had to match in duration suspending the debt ceiling,” Jeffries said.

“That wasn’t the original plan from the extreme mega Republicans. Their original plan, as you know, [was] 10 years of draconian spending caps in exchange for an 11- or 12-month suspension of the debt ceiling,” he added. “Are you kidding me? Give us a break. That was their position. And that was not the resolution.”

It was that initial GOP “position” that meant the talks could never occur on “parallel” tracks. They were directly connected — from start to finish.

A reporter on Tuesday asked Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young, Biden’s lead negotiator, if the White House “has been clinging to a fiction” about a spending deal and raising the borrowing limit not being linked.

“If you’re asking me what was said in a room, I’ll be very clear: The debt ceiling was a — what did I say earlier? — I don’t like to use the word ‘red line,’ but the debt ceiling had to be taken care of for a long period of time. I’m not sure what you call a negotiation, but it was certainly a declarative statement from this side of the table,” Young replied.

“Maybe you call that negotiating. I call that a statement of fact,” she added. “The debt ceiling had to be lifted, and it had to be lifted for a long period of time. You see this bill lift the debt ceiling until 2025. You can call it a negotiation. I call it a declarative statement. And that was our position, and that’s what’s in the bill.”

Biden, White House aides and congressional Democrats have accused House Republicans of “hostage-taking,” saying the “parallel tracks” approach was meant to save the hostage (the U.S. and global economies) while not rewarding their tactics.

Young defended the spending and debt deal the House passed Wednesday night as the logical product of divided government. By definition, that means the GOP objections to a debt hike without a spending deal made the matters intertwined.

“This is what happens in divided government,” Young said before describing administration negotiators’ strategy during the talks this way: “Protect the American people from the worst possible outcome” while also agreeing to caps to “allow Republicans to have some curbing of spending … and then we move on.”

“I think that’s a good middle ground,” she said when asked about progressive members’ gripes. “That’s just the reality.”

The position in which House Republicans opted to place Biden and his team also was the product of “divided government” and a “reality.” After all, it has never been a secret that House Republicans want deep domestic spending cuts.

Further clouding the White House’s messaging is Biden’s own defense of his role, as vice president, in the “fiscal cliff drama” of late 2011. That dance with the fiscal abyss ended when Biden and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell struck a debt ceiling deal.

Asked on May 9 if cutting a deal on the debt ceiling back then was a mistake, Biden replied: “No, in the sense that I got a call that morning at 6 o’clock saying that the Republican leader would only talk to me, and there was no time left.”

“And so I sat down, and I got instructions from the White House to settle it,” Biden added. “And that was my job.”

That also was Young’s job, following the instructions she received from Biden. She told us so this week.

“I have to look at what was our ultimate goal. And we are in divided government. This is what happens in divided government. They get to have an opinion, and we get to have an opinion. And all things equal, I think this compromise agreement is reasonable for both sides,” she said.

“Protect the American people from the worst possible outcome: [a] first-ever default. Allow Republicans to have some … curbing of spending,” Young added. “And we move on and get an appropriations process that works. And I think that’s a good middle ground.”

Negotiators ultimately pulled the fiscal train into the station. One train. On one track.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.

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