President Joe Biden and top congressional leaders emerged from a meeting on Tuesday without a concrete plan to end the impasse over raising the nation’s borrowing limit, with neither side willing to budge just weeks before the nation is set to default on its obligations.
“Everybody in this meeting reiterated the positions they were at. I didn’t see any new movement,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters after the roughly hour-long meeting in the Oval Office, which marked the first sit-down session between Biden and McCarthy since February. They were joined by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, and House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries.
McCarthy said he asked Biden “numerous times” if they could compromise on finding places in the federal budget to cut spending in exchange for raising the debt limit. “They wouldn’t give me any,” he said. Speaking after the meeting, Biden said, “I told congressional leaders that I’m prepared to begin a separate discussion about my budget, spending priorities, but not under the threat of default.” The exchange underscores how both sides remain firmly entrenched in their position on how to get around the debt limit crisis, with neither appearing to come any closer to striking an agreement.
The Speaker has maintained that he wants to attach spending reductions to a debt ceiling increase, while Biden has insisted that he would not negotiate over the debt limit, calling on Congress to pass a clean increase before addressing a framework for spending. McCarthy defended his position after the meeting, telling reporters that House Republicans have already done their part by passing a bill that would undo several major elements of the President’s domestic agenda in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
But that legislation has no chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and the White House has threatened to veto it. “We both said default is not an option—but only one of us took action,” McCarthy said, referring to the GOP debt limit bill. “The Senate hasn’t done anything.”
“Instead of him giving us a plan to remove default, he gave us a plan to take default hostage,” Schumer argued of McCarthy’s insistence to couple spending cuts with a debt limit increase. “And that is a shame because that makes things more complicated.”
White House officials said they were not expecting any major breakthrough to happen at Tuesday’s meeting. The group of leaders instead planned to use the session to emphasize their positions and lay out the parameters for the kind of debate that will likely play out in the coming weeks. “I wouldn’t call it debt ceiling negotiations,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said on Monday when asked about the meeting. “I would call it a conversation between the four leaders and the President.”
For now, the path forward to raising the debt ceiling remains unclear. McCarthy told reporters ahead of the meeting that lawmakers may need an agreement in principle by next week to lift the debt ceiling before the government runs into financial trouble—a condensed timetable given the ongoing stalemate. The government is expected to default on its debt for the first time in history as soon as June 1 without an agreement, a scenario that would be economically devastating and could plunge the global economy into a financial crisis. Biden said Tuesday that he has considered using the 14th Amendment to solve the crisis, an untested legal theory that would almost certainly be challenged in court. “The problem is it would have to be litigated, and without an extension it would end up in the same place,” Biden said.
In recent years, standoffs over the debt limit have typically been resolved in the final hours or days before a deadline. But pressure is mounting on Biden and congressional Republicans to find consensus and break the months-long stalemate over the debt ceiling and spending cuts. The four leaders will meet with Biden again in-person on Friday, McCarthy said.
McConnell, who played a critical role in previous debt ceiling standoffs, remained confident that the U.S. would not default. “It never has, it never will,” he said.