Democrats grapple over whether Biden should negotiate with McCarthy on raising debt limit

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Democrats are grappling over whether President Biden should negotiate an increase to the debt ceiling in talks with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Most Democrats are dead set against negotiating as Biden signals he’s prepared to meet with McCarthy, arguing any talks will just be gobbled up by Republicans who will then ask for more.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), for example, doesn’t want Democrats to negotiate with House Republicans until the House GOP shows it can actually pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling.

The House GOP is demanding spending cuts be paired with a debt ceiling hike, but it’s far from clear that they can rally around a single plan if Democrats in the House hold tight in opposition — especially given the narrow majority held by McCarthy.

Other Democrats think it is unrealistic for Biden and his party to take a no-negotiations stance, seeing it as politically rigid and likely to backfire.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who is up for reelection next year and represents a deep-red state in presidential elections, says it’s a “mistake” for fellow Democrats to think they can raise the debt ceiling without sitting down and negotiating with McCarthy.

Manchin met with McCarthy on Wednesday to urge him to negotiate a debt limit and fiscal reform package with Biden but warned the Speaker not to push any plans to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits.

Schumer pushed back on that idea later in the day, arguing that McCarthy doesn’t have any negotiating position until he shows he can unify his narrow House Republican majority behind a deficit reduction plan.

“Until Speaker McCarthy has a plan and a plan that can pass in the House with his Republican support, his going to the White House is like going with no cards in his hand,” Schumer said when asked if there is any value to McCarthy sitting down with Biden to negotiate the debt limit.

“The bottom line is the first step since McCarthy and many Republicans are playing brinksmanship, holding hostages … instead of playing that dangerous game of brinksmanship, it’s incumbent on them to show” their plan, Schumer said. “Show your own caucus the plan and see if you got the votes to pass it.”

The White House has also signaled it does not want to negotiate spending cuts as part of a deal to hike the debt ceiling, saying any increase in the borrowing limit should be “clean” and without conditions.

A source familiar with Wednesday’s meeting between Manchin and McCarthy described it as a “good meeting” and said that Manchin urged the Speaker to negotiate with Biden to find a path forward on raising the debt ceiling and “avoid harming the American people.”

Manchin told reporters after the meeting that McCarthy agreed not to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits as part of any fiscal reform.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), however, also dismissed a negotiation with McCarthy as a waste of time when House Republicans are holding the debt limit hostage.

“There’s a difference between negotiation and blackmail,” he said at a joint press conference with Schumer. “What they’re essentially saying on the other side of the aisle is, ‘We will detonate Social Security, detonate Medicare, detonate veterans’ benefits or possibly even risk a catastrophic default for the first time in American history.’ “

“That ain’t negotiation, that’s blackmail,” he added.

Democratic senators say that Schumer doesn’t want other members of their caucus to join Manchin’s call for bipartisan negotiation over raising the debt limit, urging them to stay unified against Republican efforts to use the debt limit as a bargaining chip.

“I thought what Sen. Schumer said was that no one is supposed to be out negotiating on this point,” Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) said of the looming debt limit expiration.

Hickenlooper said Schumer “is leading the caucus in what he thinks will be successful for this country” and that his recommendation not to negotiate is a negotiating position in itself.

Rep. Brendan Boyle (Pa.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, rejected the idea of Biden negotiating with McCarthy over the debt limit and predicted that House Republicans will have a very hard time passing any budget plan to implement the steep spending cuts favored by House conservatives.

“I doubt he could get 218 votes for that on his own side,” Boyle said of McCarthy’s pledge to cut discretionary spending to the levels appropriated by Congress for fiscal 2022, which would amount to nearly a 10 percent cut in defense spending.

He noted that McCarthy was forced to delay action on a border security bill because of squabbling between moderates and conservatives in his conference. House leaders held up another bill aimed at cracking down on progressive district attorneys in big cities because some conservatives criticized it as a federalization of law enforcement.

“McCarthy’s ability to execute in that caucus is something that does not seem terribly strong,” Boyle added. “It gives us leverage.”

He noted that past Republican Speakers John Boehner (Ohio) and Paul Ryan (Wis.) had to rely on Democratic votes to increase the debt ceiling and pass spending bills.

Boyle, who has sponsored legislation to repeal the debt ceiling and give the Treasury secretary authority to issue new debt, said “there’s no negotiation, we have to raise the debt ceiling, period.”

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) is echoing that same message.

He warned that any negotiation with Republicans would roil financial markets and the economy, as the talks would likely drag on for weeks or months.

“You know what’s going to happen, we will be lurching from one deadline to the next. It will devastate the credibility of our economy and that’s something that’s unacceptable,” said Durbin, the No. 2 member of Senate Democratic leadership. “We gave them Democratic votes for the debt ceiling under Trump, this should be a bipartisan measure under President Biden.”

That message is resonating with other Senate moderates, such as Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who said while there should be a bipartisan vote to raise the debt limit, there shouldn’t be a negotiation.

“It ought to be something that’s done automatically because the stakes are so high and it’s a fundamental responsibility of government,” said King, who caucuses with Democrats. “It ought to be done as a matter of routine, like turning the lights on. All we’re doing is authorizing the payment of bills we’ve already run up.

“The problem I have with the term ‘negotiation’ is it implies that there has to be a quid pro quo, and in this case there shouldn’t have to be.”

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