WASHINGTON – House Republicans are demanding sharp spending cuts in exchange for raising the nation’s borrowing limit this year, but they’ve suggested President Joe Biden and the Democrats should specify what exactly to cut in the federal budget.
“If Washington is spending too much money, is there not some money that President Biden can identify that’s wasteful in Washington?” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the No. 2 House Republican, said Wednesday.
Republicans’ refusal to lay out a detailed plan for tackling the debt is a result of the many internal disagreements in the narrow House GOP majority, as well as reluctance to propose cuts to popular domestic programs, including Social Security and Medicare.
Rather than propose the spending cuts they’d like to see, Republicans complained this week about Biden’s refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling, something they raised three times under President Donald Trump without any fuss. With a June deadline to act, the debt ceiling debate has kicked off with a debate about negotiating ― and which side is more responsible.
“I think we have to be sensible and we have to be responsible. We have to have a responsible debt ceiling,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Tuesday. “I want to look the president in the eye [and hear him] tell me there’s not one dollar in wasteful spending in government?”
Democrats, meanwhile, counter that the party demanding spending cuts should lay out which programs get the ax ― something Republicans are reluctant to do because they know they’ll get walloped for it on the campaign trail for the next two years.
“The House GOP is threatening spending cuts. Well, what are they?” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked in a floor speech Wednesday. “Why the evasion? Why is your conference hiding from the American people? House Republicans: Where are your cards?”
The White House has indicated that Biden will meet with McCarthy in the coming weeks to discuss the debt limit and other legislative business.
The debt ceiling is a legal limit, set by Congress, on how much money the Treasury Department is allowed to borrow. Failing to raise the limit could cause the federal government to miss payments to bondholders and even Social Security recipients, potentially triggering a financial crisis and recession.
Republicans have suggested they would like to see severe spending cuts, but also that they would like to spare the military. The vast majority of federal spending outside of defense lies in popular entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
But Republicans have been vague about whether they would seriously pursue entitlement reforms. McCarthy has said simply that Republicans will “always protect Medicare and Social Security.”
In 2011, when Republicans similarly took the debt ceiling hostage, Congress wound up settling for short-lived caps on “discretionary spending,” meaning limits on funds for federal agencies and no changes to popular retirement programs. After the federal government came close to defaulting, then-President Barack Obama vowed not to negotiate on the debt limit again. As the next deadline approached in 2013, Obama held firm and Republicans blinked.
But the Obama administration had been open to a “grand bargain” with Republicans that would have combined spending and benefit cuts in programs like Social Security in order to reduce federal budget deficits. Biden even served as Obama’s emissary in one of several ad-hoc negotiating groups.
McCarthy recalled Wednesday that Biden had once been more open to negotiation.
“This isn’t even the behavior of past Joe Biden,” McCarthy said. “When Joe Biden was vice president [they even called them] ‘the Biden talks.’” He praised the idea of negotiation together.”
When he ran for president in 2020, Biden jettisoned his past deficit hawkery and proposed closing a future funding gap in Social Security solely by using taxes on higher earners. And Biden’s White House has not shown much openness to a new grand bargain.
The wrangling over the debt limit is still in its early stages, with both parties posturing ahead of a coming showdown between Biden and McCarthy. Republicans haven’t yet coalesced around a specific ask in exchange for hiking the debt ceiling, but they’ve thrown out general ideas like a balanced budget amendment and a $100 billion cap on discretionary spending in the coming years.
“Exactly what those are, we’re not willing to lay that out today. We’re going to be doing that in consultation with the House,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told reporters when asked what, specifically, he and other Senate conservatives would like to eliminate in the budget.
“I’m not going to take the bait of the Democrats’ narrative. I know they’re having a lot of fun with this,” added Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) after a similar query.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) did offer one specific idea: cutting funding for food stamp and Medicaid recipients who don’t have children and who aren’t disabled. Kennedy said the proposal would save $75 billion a year, or about one-tenth of one percent of the federal budget over that time.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he was confident that both Biden and Republicans in the House would ultimately hash out their differences in coming negotiations over the debt ceiling.
“We’ve eventually gotta say: ‘Here’s what we want,’” Graham said.