In Debt Limit Talks, Biden and Republicans Start Far Apart
President Biden is set to welcome Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other top congressional leaders to the White House on Tuesday for a pivotal round of discussions about the nation’s taxes, spending and debt as a potentially catastrophic government default rapidly approaches.
The talks come just weeks before the United States is expected to run out of cash to pay its bills unless the nation’s borrowing cap is lifted. Like previous moments of brinkmanship, the discussions have echoes of 2011 and 2013, when congressional Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling unless a Democratic president agreed to curb federal spending and reduce budget deficits. The same dynamic is at play now, but with a crucial difference: The parties share almost no common ground on tax and spending proposals that are meant to reduce the growth of the nation’s $31.4 trillion debt.
The meeting is not expected to produce anything close to final agreement on a fiscal plan that could include raising the debt limit. But even small points of consensus could be hard to come by.
Mr. Biden wants to expand federal spending and reduce future debt, largely by raising taxes on high earners and large companies. Republicans have passed a bill to cut federal discretionary spending — a category that includes national parks, education and more — and cancel tax breaks for certain low-emission energy sources that were part of Mr. Biden’s signature climate law. Republicans have promised to extend the 2017 tax cuts that were approved by President Donald J. Trump and are set to expire at the end of 2025.
While both sides say they want to reduce the nation’s future debt burden, there is almost no overlap in how they aim to achieve that outcome. The only point of agreement so far is on the one thing Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy consider off limits in budget talks: Social Security and Medicare, the primary sources of projected federal spending growth in the decades to come.
The gulf on fiscal issues is one of several complicating factors in discussions over the debt limit, which the government technically hit earlier this year. Officials have been employing what are essentially accounting maneuvers to keep paying all the government’s bills on time without going over the current $31.4 trillion limit. But Janet L. Yellen, the Treasury secretary, warned in a letter last week that those efforts will no longer be possible as soon as June 1, risking a debt default that economists warn could spawn a financial crisis and recession.
We Hit the Debt Limit. What Happens Now?
Lawmakers will need to reach a bipartisan agreement to lift the debt limit. The longer it takes, the more turmoil there could be for the United States and the global economy.
Mr. Biden has refused to negotiate directly over the limit, saying Republicans must vote to raise it without conditions, given that it simply allows the government to pay for spending that lawmakers in both parties have already approved. But he invited Mr. McCarthy and other congressional leaders to come to the White House on Tuesday for what he called a separate negotiation on fiscal policy — even though it is effectively linked to the debt limit drama.
Republicans say they will not raise the limit without significant curbs in spending. That is the same position they took in 2011 and 2013, under President Barack Obama, when Mr. Biden was vice president. They did not make similar demands to raise the limit when they controlled Congress at the start of Mr. Trump’s term and Republican votes helped to effectively raise the limit.
In 2011, Mr. Obama entered debt limit negotiations with a set of proposed spending cuts. They included a five-year freeze on discretionary spending not related to national security, a separate freeze on federal workers’ salaries for two years and the elimination of an air-to-air missile program and a fighting vehicle for the Marine Corps. Republicans countered with a budget that featured deep cuts to federal health care spending, privatizing Medicare for future beneficiaries and new tax cuts.
Republicans ultimately agreed to raise the debt limit in exchange for budget changes centered on caps on discretionary spending — essentially modifying and expanding the spending freeze Mr. Obama had proposed in his budget.
Unlike Mr. Obama more than a decade ago, Mr. Biden has never agreed with Republicans’ argument that federal spending has grown too large. He has proposed to scale back the growth in government debt, but his aides reject the Republican contention that the current path of the debt poses a significant threat to economic growth.
Mr. Biden’s most recent budget included $3 trillion in proposals to reduce future deficits. The savings would come largely from tax increases on the wealthy and big corporations, along with cutting government spending on health care by broadening Medicare’s ability to negotiate prescription drug prices.
Republicans have rejected all the tax increases and criticized Mr. Biden earlier this year for not proposing to spend even more on the military than he already did.
House Republicans have not put forth or passed a budget. The bill they passed last month would raise the debt limit by $1.5 trillion or through March 2024, whichever came first. It would reduce future deficits by nearly $5 trillion, largely by freezing certain federal spending for a decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
It also included new supports for fossil fuels, a rollback of Mr. Biden’s climate change agenda and an end to the president’s attempt to cancel student loan debt for most borrowers, which appears likely to be struck down by the Supreme Court regardless.
Neither side has found anything to like in the other’s starting position. Republicans “didn’t produce a budget,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader, who will join Mr. McCarthy at the White House meeting, told NBC News on Sunday. “What they did was produce a ransom note.”
Representative Jodey C. Arrington of Texas, the chairman of the Budget Committee, countered that Mr. Biden would have to relent and negotiate with Republicans.
Mr. Biden “has negotiated, as vice president and as a senator, debt ceiling increases, with common-sense spending controls and fiscal reforms,” Mr. Arrington told Fox News on Sunday. “And we’re just asking him to be a responsible leader and do that again.”