WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and congressional leaders — including the two top Republicans — will meet Tuesday in the Oval Office to open negotiations to head off an impending default crisis, although neither side expects the summit to make much progress.
With the Treasury Department saying the government will run out of money as soon as June 1 unless Congress raises its borrowing limit, Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have precious little time and virtually no pre-existing relationship.
But even sitting down together is seen as a major step forward, because the White House has so far refused to negotiate over the debt ceiling itself and both sides agree a resolution is essential to avoid the unprecedented economic calamity of a default.
“The president has been very clear that he wants to communicate to the leaders the urgency of resolving the debt limit and preventing default,” said a White House aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Republicans want to link spending cuts with an increase in the debt ceiling, and McCarthy said Tuesday he would reject a short-term deal.
“I think we need it by next week,” McCarthy told reporters in Capitol. “I think we should just get in the room and solve this thing… I don’t think it’s that difficult.”
The White House aide said Biden is still not willing to negotiate over the debt ceiling itself, but he is open to separately discussing the spending cuts Republicans are seeking as part of the budget process.
“We’ve been clear that he wants to have that conversation about the budget and that he has put forward both a way to reduce the deficit in a way that is responsible with both revenue raisers and spending cuts. So we’re open to spending cuts. We’ve made that clear,” the aide said.
Biden is not interested in trying to use the 14th Amendment in a novel way to circumvent the debt ceiling, as some liberal legal scholars have suggested, the aide said, echoing Biden’s insistence that it is up to Congress alone to raise the borrowing limit.
“He will reiterate that this is Congress’ constitutional obligation and they need to get this done. That position hasn’t changed, and he will make that clear,” the aide said.
Nor will Biden go into the meeting with a proposal that lawmakers pass a short-term increase in the debt limit to avert a crisis while the two sides continue talks. (As recently as last week, the White House was weighing whether to support a short-term extension.)
“That is not something that’s going to be offered by the president at the meeting,” the aide said.
Senior House and Senate leadership staff huddled with top White House legislative aides on Friday to lay the groundwork for Tuesday’s negotiations, three sources familiar with the matter confirmed to NBC News. Those in attendance included Louisa Terrell, the White House director of legislative affairs. Punchbowl first reported the behind-the-scenes meeting.
Republicans, as they did during the Obama administration in 2011 and 2013, are trying to use the threat of a default as leverage to force the Democratic-controlled Senate and the president to acquiesce to spending cuts. What, exactly, they expect to be able to cut is unclear, and it is likely to be revealed only through negotiations.
The Republican-controlled House last month passed a bill to raise the debt limit that amounted to a wish list of spending cuts and other policy, but GOP lawmakers have privately acknowledged that the bill was more about trying to strengthen their negotiating position than about creating legislation that could pass into law.
McCarthy says Republicans will demand something in exchange for their approval to raise the debt ceiling.
“We will not pass a debt ceiling that just raises it without doing something about our debt,” McCarthy told reporters last week during an official trip to Israel.
McCarthy’s team has been telling conservative influencers that it believes Biden will cave in and end up giving some concessions in line with the GOP bill, a source familiar with the discussions said.
If things come down to the wire, options that McCarthy has ruled out — such as a bipartisan discharge petition — may come back on the table, the source said.
“It’s not going to be pretty at the end of the day,” the source said, adding that McCarthy seemed to have few good options and that anything could happen.
Biden will need support not only from McCarthy’s House Republicans but also from at least some Senate Republicans and potentially Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to secure the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.
McConnell, who had until recently kept his distance from the issue, took to the Senate floor Tuesday in the hours before the meeting to reaffirm his support for McCarthy and point the finger at Biden.
“The solution is clear. It’s been clear for months. President Biden needs to negotiate on spending with Speaker McCarthy,” McConnell said. “Everybody knows this is on President Biden. Rank and file House and Senate Democrats have publicly called on the White House to negotiate.”
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Americans were divided over whom they would blame if the government defaults on its debt, with independent voters somewhat more likely to blame congressional Republicans than Biden.
The White House and Democratic super PACs have been putting pressure on moderate Republicans in battleground districts in hope of getting them to back down.
Biden will travel Wednesday to New York’s Hudson Valley — where Republican Rep. Mike Lawler last year unseated Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney — to demand that Congress raise the debt ceiling without conditions and to trash the GOP spending cut bill, which the White House said would cut services for veterans, teachers and others.
That the meeting is happening at all works in Biden’s favor, a former Republican House member said. In a period of raw partisanship, he appears collegial in calling the four leaders of both parties into the Oval Office to hash out differences, said Joe Walsh, who represented an Illinois district in the House for 12 years.
Biden’s message is ultimately the more reasonable one, amounting to: “‘Come on, let’s pay our bills before we talk about spending cuts,’” Walsh said. “That’s a notion that will resonate with the American people. Team Biden believes they’re in better shape politically, and having this meeting makes Biden look better.”