WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden hosted the Democratic congressional leaders Tuesday at the White House as they face a new era of divided government in Washington, staring down a debt ceiling crisis and running up against a new House Republican majority eager for confrontation.
The president and the top Democrats used the private gathering in the Roosevelt Room to project a unified front against what Biden called “extreme Republican economic plans.” Rather than enter into negotiations with House Republicans to cut spending in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, the White House has stressed repeatedly that it wants Congress to lift the borrowing capacity without conditions. Democrats said it's up to Republicans to go public about what budget cuts the new House majority wants to make.
“Apparently they're genuinely serious about cutting Social Security, cutting Medicare," Biden said about the GOP proposals as he sat down with the Democratic leaders from the House and the Senate.
As the meeting began, Biden said Democrats were eager to talk about the GOP extremes. He scoffed at the Republicans' proposed 30% sales tax.
"Look, I have no intention of letting the Republicans wreck our economy,” Biden added.
The coming showdown has a familiar precedent — a little more than a decade ago, a new generation of “tea party” House Republicans swept to power, eager to confront the Obama administration to slash federal spending and curb the nation's ballooning debt load. As vice president at the time, Biden was central to those negotiations, but the House Republicans and the White House could never strike a deal, causing a fiscal crisis. This go around, Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress are in no mood to broker deals with a new era of hardline Republicans led by the Freedom Caucus.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is eager to push Biden to the negotiating table, hoping to make good on the promises the GOP leader made to holdouts during his campaign to become House speaker to pare federal spending back to fiscal 2022 levels, which would be a sizable 8% budget cut.
The White House has not yet invited McCarthy for a meeting, but says it plans to do so soon.
“It's very disappointing,” McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol. “Here’s the leader of the free world pounding on a table, being irresponsible, saying ‘No, no, no, just raise the limit’?”
The speaker said he's not saying “never” to raising the nation's debt capacity, but “we have to be sensible and we have to be responsible” about the budget.
McCarthy said he wants Biden to look him in the eye "and tell me there’s not one dollar of wasteful spending in government.”
In the Senate, Republicans appear more than willing to stand aside, for now, letting McCarthy and the House GOP take the lead in talks with Biden — and wary of embracing the kind of cuts to federal spending the House GOP wants but that have little chance of becoming law.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday, “I think it is entirely reasonable for the new speaker and his team to put spending reduction on the table.”
McConnell said of McCarthy's yet-unscheduled-session with Biden: “I wish him well and in talking to the president. That’s where a solution lies.”
The afternoon meeting between Biden and the Democratic leaders came as the White House was throwing open its doors for a new lawmaker reception later Tuesday evening, though some House Republicans said they would not attend because of the administration’s coronavirus protocols, such as showing proof of vaccination and getting tested in advance.
Freshman Rep. Nick LaLota, R-N.Y. tweeted, “I am forgoing a historic trip to the White House to raise awareness of this punitive policy in hopes that President Biden will reverse it” for all federal offices.
On the debt, the Treasury Department notified Congress last week that the nation has reached its borrowing capacity, $31 trillion, and will need to increase the limit to be able to continue paying off its already accrued bills. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has launched extraordinary measures which are routinely used at times like this, but those will run out in June.
After the White House meeting, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the new House minority leader, said: “We have a responsibility to pay the debts that the Congress has already incurred. That is what the debt ceiling is all about."
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters the meeting with Biden underscored the contrast between the Democrats and the Republicans as he challenged GOP lawmakers to put their budget-cutting plans on the table. "Republicans are in chaos,” Schumer said.
Debt has been climbing for years, the last time the federal budget didn’t carry red-ink deficits was during the Clinton years. Instead, the George W. Bush administration saw the debt skyrocket thanks to tax cuts and the wars overseas. Debt grew again in the Barack Obama era especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
The 2011 negotiations centered around a $1-for-$1 tradeoff of spending cuts for new debt, but the sides could never agree to the size and scope of reductions in federal health care, military, infrastructure and other accounts. So far, the Biden administration has refused to engage with House Republicans.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of Republican leadership.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the Finance Committee, said his party learned its lessons when negotiating with Republicans on the debt ceiling in 2011.
“We know what happened. It almost threw the economy into the ditch," Wyden said. "That’s the lesson.”
One idea being discussed has been for Congress to establish some sort of debt panel, much like the failed “Super Committee” that tried in the aftermath of the 2011 talks to come up with agreed upon ways to cut federal spending.
“The bottom line is, can we find a pathway forward before all the theatrics start?" said Sen. Joe Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat who is known for straddling the party lines. "We know we’re going to pass it. It’s just a matter of how much pain you want to put people through.”
Associated Press writers Josh Boak, Kevin Freking and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.