Lawmakers grumble over lack of info on secret Biden debt-limit negotiations

Lawmakers are expressing frustration with the lack of information they have received from Vice President Biden’s debt-limit negotiations.

The growing restlessness comes as Biden and six members of Congress are aiming to release the framework of a bipartisan deal by July 1 that will lift the nation’s debt ceiling while cutting trillions of dollars from the budget.

ADVERTISEMENT
While the Biden group has expressed optimism that a deal is within reach, rank-and-file members are skeptical, and are raising questions about the lack of transparency. 

In a Wednesday floor speech, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) warned that a debt-ceiling deal being negotiated in the closed-door talks might be too modest and could draw little support in the upper chamber.

Corker, a key member of the Banking Committee, said, “I’m concerned that the type of deal that they may be trying to seek is not something that many of us in this body would even agree to if they reached it, meaning that it’s far more modest than I think most of us have been looking at.”

The Tennessee Republican called on Biden and Republican and Democratic leaders involved in the talks to “publicly tell us by the end of next week what deal it is they’re trying to accomplish, and in what timeframe.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) predicted legislators will not get enough time to review the deal before voting on it: “The rank and file will, during this thing, feel like the minority.”

He added that lawmakers are wary in the wake of the 2011 fiscal budget deal, where some members did not feel they had much of a say in the final agreement.

Others in Congress say the only way to iron out a deal is to do exactly what Biden is doing: holding private, bipartisan discussions on the politically sensitive issue.

Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), a member of the Republican leadership team, said the GOP learned valuable lessons from the government-shutdown showdown: “When you are negotiating in public, not everybody understands that you’re not starting at your endgame … We’ve learned that lesson, that you have to be very careful what you say publicly, or you get dismissed as having sold out.”

Legislators involved in the talks have been tight-lipped.

In his weekly press briefing, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) described the talks in general terms: “We have hit the point at which we are at some really tough stuff. Big numbers … big changes to popular programs.”

Pressed for details, Cantor said he would not “betray the confidence of those meetings.”

It is unclear whether Biden group members are briefing their colleagues in Congress, but it’s unlikely, because little information has been leaked to the media.

ADVERTISEMENT
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is not a member of the Biden group, said, “I don’t even know what all is being discussed in those talks.”

During the last Congress, Republicans decried Democrats’ “closed-door” and “secret” negotiations on healthcare reform. 

At the time, then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) touted a GOP resolution aimed at making the healthcare discussions public as part of the Republican leadership’s transparency initiative.

Feeling political pressure, President Obama subsequently admitted he had made a mistake in holding closed-door talks, violating his campaign pledge to hold them on C-SPAN. He later held a bipartisan, televised forum with lawmakers on healthcare that helped the White House seize political momentum. The bill narrowly passed in March of 2010. 

Unlike healthcare reform, this year’s behind-closed-door discussions are bipartisan, but that hasn’t satisfied some in Congress.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a freshman on the Budget Committee, told The Washington Post, “I keep talking to other colleagues who have confidence that someone else is working things out. But I keep looking around thinking, ‘If we’re not doing it, then who is?’ ”

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) on Wednesday defended the process.

“This is actually working pretty well,” he said. “I know everybody wants to know everything around here, but you really don’t need to know, you just need to see the final deal and obviously consider that and vote yes or no.

“You either trust your negotiators or you don’t, and with the caveat that obviously you are going to have the final decision — because we will see the deal. I trust Eric Cantor. I know he’s serious about this. I trust [Senate Minority Whip] Jon Kyl [R-Ariz.]. So I’m content. I don’t think they are going to bring us back a bad deal.”

Kyl is representing Senate Republicans in the Biden group. 

Corker said he has heard several possible elements of a deal that he thinks could be opposed by Republicans. For example, he said he heard the agreement might allow for a $2.4 trillion increase in the debt ceiling over an 18-month period, which would be matched by $2.4 trillion in cuts over a 10-year period.

“And so you can see there’s a vast discrepancy in what’s taking place,” said Corker, who implied it could be difficult for GOP senators to back that large a debt-ceiling hike for much smaller cuts to annual deficits.

Corker added that members of the Senate are “frustrated,” especially since the Senate has done “absolutely nothing” this year. He later hedged on that to say the Senate has done “almost nothing.”

The Biden group must show results to Congress weeks before that deadline so that its deal can be turned into legislative language, sold to members of both parties and moved through both the House and Senate. The Treasury Department has set an Aug. 2 deadline for legislation to clear, but the administration and congressional leaders — worried about the ailing economy and fragile stock market — want to clear a measure in July.

Indicative of the gaps between positions on the issue, 10 Republican senators and 11 GOP House members have signed on to a pledge to oppose the debt-limit increase unless three conditions are met: substantial cuts in spending that will reduce the deficit; the implementation of enforceable spending caps; and passage of a balanced-budget amendment.

The Biden-led group is expected to convene Thursday for its third meeting of the week.