WASHINGTON — House Republicans are not ready to give up on President Joe Biden agreeing to negotiate on the debt limit, but if he doesn’t engage, they say they will act on their own.
Republicans are seeking fiscal policy changes to pair with a debt limit increase, but Democrats say they won’t bargain on such conditions and are insisting on a clean bill. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and President Joe Biden exchanged letters Tuesday doubling down on those positions.
McCarthy’s letter floated a nonexhaustive list of policy options Republicans are prepared to discuss, including energy and border policy measures as well as fiscal restraints like nondefense discretionary spending curbs and work requirements for benefit programs.
McCarthy said Thursday that Biden “apparently doesn’t want to meet” and “needs to change his behavior, go back to the person he said he was, (believing) you need to sit down.”
But the speaker said if Biden doesn’t reverse course soon, Republicans are coalescing around a debt limit bill they could bring to the floor that would reflect the positions outlined in his letter.
“The conference is very close, and if the president doesn’t act, we will,” he said.
McCarthy said he still wants to meet with Biden but expressed frustration at the president’s intransigence.
“He is making the decision that he wants to put the economy in jeopardy,” the speaker said. “I would bring the lunch to the White House. I would make it soft food if that’s what he wants … whatever it takes to meet.”
While Biden has said he won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling, he did offer to meet with McCarthy to discuss fiscal issues once Republicans produce a budget blueprint.
McCarthy dismissed that condition. “A budget resolution doesn’t even go to the president. And a budget resolution doesn’t raise the debt limit,” he said.
For now, other Republicans are largely on board with McCarthy’s strategy of continuing to try to put pressure on Biden to negotiate, especially since they’ll need bipartisan support to get a bill through the Senate.
“We can’t avert a crisis without a deal. And we can’t cut a deal without a partner,” Republican Main Street Caucus Chairman Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., said Thursday.
Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., who chairs the leadership committee that works through policy issues with different factions of the Republican Conference, hosted a briefing with reporters on the debt limit Thursday with members from various ideological wings of the party.
Johnson and Reps. Scott Perry, R-Pa., chairman of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus; Chip Roy, R-Texas, the Freedom Caucus policy chair; Bryan Steil, R-Wis., who’s not in the Freedom Caucus but participates in four other ideological groups; and Laurel Lee, R-Fla., a freshman who is in two of the more mainstream conservative groups, attended.
Graves said the members from all five factions within the conference have been discussing the debt limit for months and the ideas McCarthy floated in his letter to Biden are ones the conference is unified behind.
“Could the House, if we get close to where the president continues stonewalling, to where the Senate doesn’t engage, could we convert his letter into legislation?” Graves said. “Yeah, I think that’s absolutely an option that’s on the table. But I think what all of us would prefer is to actually engage and have a discussion.”
Graves and others at the briefing stressed that they’re not wedded to any specific policy solution so long as it meets their conference’s stated goal of slowing spending. That’s why Graves said he doesn’t see a measure overhauling the energy permitting process being acceptable as the sole attachment to the debt limit.
The Congressional Budget Office scored the permitting provisions in Republicans’ sweeping energy package as adding to the deficit within the 10-year budget window. That’s because some spending envisioned in previous laws, like the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and Democrats’ 2022 climate law, would be accelerated and occur sooner under a streamlined permitting process in the House GOP bill.
“From a spending or negotiation perspective, it actually makes things more difficult. I understand from a political perspective it’s perhaps greasing the wheels,” Graves said, noting that 42% of the projects going through the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process right now are for renewable energy. “Democrats need permitting reform more than Republicans do.”
While Democrats have accused the GOP of “brinkmanship” for demanding conditions for raising the debt limit, House Republicans say it’s Democrats who turned this into a political issue by not attaching a debt limit increase to the fiscal 2023 omnibus spending law in December when they controlled both chambers.
Graves said he thinks Biden was willing to negotiate with Republicans but that Senate leaders drove him to his current stance. He and other GOP lawmakers emphasized that Republicans will not agree to a clean debt ceiling increase.
Perry said he thinks Biden is “banking on” the ability to blame Republicans for any economic consequences of not raising the debt limit, but that won’t work.
“There’s going to be shrapnel all around,” he said. “Everybody might take some wounds from it, but he’s not walking out of this thing unscathed.”
Roy predicted Biden will cave before that happens.
“The president’s going to negotiate. That’s going to happen,” he said. “The only question is when.”
Part of the issue with Biden not negotiating is he’s not even specified how long or large of a debt limit increase he is seeking, Perry said. “We don’t even know what they want other than clean what, at what level?”
Among the demands Republicans say they’re unified around is cutting spending to pre-pandemic levels. Most are interested in returning to the fiscal 2022 topline, which Johnson called the “the lingua franca” among the conference.
Roy pointed out that former President Barack Obama’s last budget envisioned spending $613 billion in nondefense discretionary accounts come fiscal 2024. That number combined with the fiscal 2023 enacted level for defense spending “gives you exactly $1.471 trillion, which is the 2022 level,” he said.
“We’re simply saying that we ought to be living in the same world and common sense of having a bureaucracy in this town that is actually at pre-COVID levels before (spending) exploded,” Roy said. “That is not an irrational ask.”
Despite broad interest in returning to fiscal 2022 spending levels for nondefense, Graves said Republicans are not taking an absolutist approach.
“I think ‘22 is where most of our heads are,” he said. “But once again, we’re open to negotiate. We just can’t negotiate with ourselves.”
As Republicans wait for Biden to engage, some Democrats in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus have already acknowledged a debt ceiling increase will likely involve concessions to Republicans.
A task force of Problem Solvers members has been regularly meeting to negotiate conditions both sides could live with. The members participating include Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., the caucus co-chairs, Ed Case, D-Hawaii, Don Bacon, R-Neb., Scott Peters, D-Calif., and others.
Gottheimer said the task force met Wednesday and intends to produce a plan “in short order.” He declined to reveal details of what they’re discussing.
“It’s more of a framework. There’s no specific recommendations about numbers,” Peters said, declining to get into specifics.
Peters said the framework is intended to be a backup option if Biden, McCarthy and other congressional leaders don’t negotiate a deal.
“The Democrats in our group all support a clean increase and hope for that, but appreciate that the dynamics are what they are and it may not be possible,” he said.