Biden, McCarthy meet for high stakes debt showdown
President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will sit down Wednesday for a high-stakes meeting amid tensions over what each man characterizes as playing politics with a potential economic disaster.
They will have to come up with a deal to avoid the country defaulting on its debt as some Republicans threaten to not be on board without the promise of spending cuts and the White House asserting it would take no “hostages” or negotiate terms of the matter.
Biden and McCarthy have had few in-person interactions so far at the White House. Since McCarthy became Speaker in January — a 15-vote process Biden at one point called “embarrassing” — the White House has issued frequent statements criticizing him and GOP House members, while McCarthy’s conference has moved ahead with congressional investigations into Biden and his family.
But Wednesday’s meeting will serve as a starting point to Biden and McCarthy’s one-on-one working relationship since the GOP took over the House and may signal whether the two can form any sort of partnership for the next two years.
“One of the problems I see is there’s no established relationship yet between the president and the Speaker. But probably more importantly, I think that it’s going to take a while for House Republicans to agree on strategy,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to the late Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“Both men are obviously demanding that the other make the first move, so we’ll see how it plays out,” Manley said, adding he expects “very little of substance to come out of this meeting.”
Speaking to reporters Monday, Biden said his message to McCarthy at the meeting would be: “Show me your budget and I’ll show you mine.”
The next day, the White House said in a memo that it would press McCarthy for a firm commitment to avoid a default — a notion the California Republican told CBS on Sunday he was dedicated to. Biden said he would urge Republicans to release a budget proposal on March 9, the same day the president plans to release his fiscal 2024 plan.
“Mr. President: I received your staff’s memo. I’m not interested in political games. I’m coming to negotiate for the American people,” McCarthy said in response to the memo.
All barbs aside, Biden and McCarthy will likely raise other issues during their discussion, but much of the focus will be on the debt ceiling. Congress must agree to lift the debt limit by roughly June, or the U.S. government will default and potentially send the economy into a tailspin.
Hard-line conservatives who prevented McCarthy from winning the Speaker’s gavel until a 15th round of voting may put him in a difficult bargaining position over the debt limit where he can only afford to lose four votes.
Biden on Tuesday called McCarthy a “decent man” but criticized the Speaker to a group of Democratic donors in New York City for making “off-the-wall” promises to Republicans to secure the Speakership.
Some House Republicans have said debt talks should be used to secure assurances on spending cuts, even as the party remains divided over whether defense spending and programs like Medicare or Social Security should be under consideration.
John Stipicevic, McCarthy’s former floor director, noted that the Speaker is known for bringing together multiple factions of the House Republican Conference
“He’s the leader you can look to to get an outcome. He will bring some conservatives to the table. He has always been the convener,” Stipicevic said.
“I suspect McCarthy is pleased the meeting is happening and is going into this with a conservative-first strategy, but is a realist as well,” Stipicevic said.
The White House’s relationship with the top Republican in the House is markedly different from its approach with the GOP leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
Biden has spoken frequently throughout his term about his decades-long relationship with McConnell and their willingness to work together despite policy differences. The president and the Kentucky senator attended an event together earlier this month to tout funding for bridge improvements in McConnell’s home state, and the two rode together in the presidential limousine during the visit.
In comparison, Biden acknowledged in November that he hadn’t had much reason to talk to McCarthy prior to the GOP winning the House. White House aides have issued frequent statements since he became Speaker accusing him of making back-room deals, being held hostage by his party’s most extreme members and of misleading the public with comments about Social Security and Medicare.
“[Biden] does have great relationships across the aisle, but unfortunately when it comes to the Speaker there’s not much there, at least not yet,” Manley said. “Whether they can develop one remains to be seen.”
Biden and McCarthy aren’t expected to develop any deep bonds — a contrast from the relatively cordial relationship between former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and former President Obama. Boehner and Obama negotiated on various issues one-on-one and behind closed doors, sometimes without the Republican conference even knowing about the meetings.
Despite butting heads during the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, Boehner and Obama would come together for personal moments, like a 2016 spoof video of them together in the White House movie theater talking about retirement.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) relationship with former President Trump, which featured open acrimony from both sides—a bitterness captured memorably by Pelosi ripping up his State of the Union address and scolding him across the table in a meeting.
McCarthy allies predict a different kind of relationship between Biden and McCarthy than previously seen between presidents and speakers of different parties. Some say Biden and McCarthy will be able to work together if they can do some simple thing: communicate.
“I suspect that even if the president and him are not always agreeing, [McCarthy] will consider it a constructive relationship if there’s an open line of communication,” Stipicevic said. “Kevin McCarthy is not going to be the one to not return a call, that’s for sure.”
Mike Lillis contributed to this report.
Updated 9:18 a.m.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.