McCarthy says ‘no movement’ from meeting over debt ceiling with Biden as GOP continues holding US economy hostage

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy of Calif., left, listens as President Joe Biden speaks before a meeting on the debt limit in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (AP)
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy of Calif., left, listens as President Joe Biden speaks before a meeting on the debt limit in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (AP)

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday’s meeting between him, other Congressional leaders and President Joe Biden had produced no forward progress on an agreement to stave off what economists say would be a catastrophic default on America’s sovereign debt.

Mr McCarty, who has kept the House in recess for the last two weeks and for a majority of the days since he and Mr Biden last met on 1 February, told reporters outside the White House that Mr Biden and both Republican and Democratic leaders had merely reiterated the positions they held when the House Speaker and the President met 97 days before.

“Nothing has changed since then ... everybody in this meeting reiterated the positions they were at. I didn't see any new movement,” he said.

The California Republican’s last meeting came just a few weeks after he eked out enough votes to claim the Speaker’s gavel with support from extremist and white nationalist members of the House Republican Conference, many of whom demanded that he use the need to lift the government’s century-old statutory debt ceiling as leverage to force Mr Biden to roll back much of the legislative record he and Democrats accomplished over the prior two years.

Since that February meeting, the White House and the House of Representatives have remained far apart on what is needed before legislation allowing the US to resume issuing new debt instruments can reach Mr Biden’s desk for his signature.

For his part, the president’s view has remained consistent since the beginning of the year. Mr Biden has repeatedly said that Congress should pass a “clean” debt ceiling increase and negotiate on spending cuts desired for next fiscal year when Congress begins work on a budget.

Mr McCarthy characterised Mr Biden’s insistence that the Congress lift the debt ceiling on its’ own and address the spending cuts Republicans covet during the regular budgeting process as intransigent even though Republicans have not introduced a budget proposal for the next fiscal year. He also accused Senate Majority Leader Check Schumer of trying to stymie negotiations so Congress would be left without a choice but to pass the “clean” debt ceiling increase desired by Democrats and Mr Biden.

“Chuck's whole idea before was to take us to the brink and someone's going to have to break right. I don't want to play politics with this. I think this is too important,” said the Speaker, who suggested the only reason Mr Biden had called a meeting was because the GOP-led House had passed a bill to raise the debt limit while enacting drastic cuts to government programmes favoured by Democrats.

That legislation, which passed the House with a bare majority of GOP votes last month, would provide just a year’s worth of relief coupled with spending provisions that slash non-defence spending by as much as 20 per cent. Among the programmes on the chopping block: President Joe Biden’s student debt relief initiative, as well as funding for new IRS personnel.

The plan would also add new work requirements for adults on Medicaid, cap the growth of the federal government, and impose 2022 limits on discretionary spending. The White House said in response to the bill’s passage that Republicans were attempting to “strip away health care services for veterans, cut access to Meals on Wheels, eliminate health care coverage for millions of Americans and ship manufacturing jobs overseas”.

While the House-passed bill is unlikely to go anywhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, thus far Mr McConnell and Senate Republicans have backed up Mr McCarthy’s demand for Mr Biden to sign off on GOP-endorsed austerity measures in exchange for Republican votes to allow the US to continue paying its’ debts.

Prominent GOP figures frequently claim that raising the statutory debt limit to enable the US to continue meeting financial obligations — a practice that was once routine under presidents of both parties and met no objections when it was done under Mr Biden’s predecessor — is akin to authorising new spending.

That claim, however, is not how the debt limit works. Raising the debt limit does not increase or decrease the amount of money that is spent on programmes that have already been authorised by Congress and have had funds allocated to them in appropriations legislation.

Experts say a failure to raise the debt limit would force the government to default on its debt and precipitate a worldwide financial crisis. The last time the US flirted with that disastrous outcome was 2011, when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats controlled the Senate and the White House. Mr Biden, then the vice president under Barack Obama, led the negotiations with congressional leaders that headed off a default, but not before the US had its credit rating decreased for the first time in history.

That 2011 dispute ended with Republicans suffering a drop in their approval ratings and facing accusations of endangering the US economy for political reasons. It also came along with an unprecedented downgrade in America’s credit rating. Those same charges are being raised again now by the White House and the president’s allies in Congress, who are holding firm on Mr Biden’s call for a clean debt limit boost.

Earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that unless Congress acts, the US will by 1 June cease having the legal ability to issue debt instruments that allow the government to pay for spending already authorized and incurred.

Despite attempts by reporters to get Mr McCarthy to guarantee that the US would not default, the House Speaker repeatedly refused to make such a promise.