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September 24, 2023


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Ahead of Debt-Ceiling Deal, Some Democrats Point Finger at Biden

5 min read

For days, Democratic lawmakers have been openly questioning the White House’s approach to a deal that needs some of their votes to pass, given that many Republicans will also oppose it, to head off a default. Among their complaints: that President Biden was giving away too much in the deal, that the White House’s messaging was muddled and that Biden was publicly silent while House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) was chatting to the press around the clock.

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists globally. Why are we going to negotiate with the economic terrorists here?” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.), referring to Republicans’ apparent willingness to default rather than pass a clean debt-ceiling increase. When asked if he was worried that Democrats were giving away too much in the negotiations, he said he was very concerned.

White House aides say that they are fighting for Democratic priorities, such as preserving the climate and healthcare legislation passed last year. People close to the White House said Biden opted to largely stay quiet to give negotiators room to do their jobs.

The White House is working closely with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D., N.Y.), who is in his first term leading the Democratic caucus. Jeffries will face the challenge of delivering votes for a deal he didn’t negotiate—a task that could be even tougher if the final agreement includes work requirements for federal benefits, which many in his own caucus have said is a red line.

McCarthy faces his own intraparty puzzle: The final deal will certainly be opposed by some conservative Republicans, who have complained that he has given too much away to Democrats, so he needs to ensure those opponents aren’t so frustrated that they move to oust him from the speakership.

Biden is gearing up for a re-election bid that will require Democratic fundraising and support around the country as he faces low approval ratings. Party leaders have so far been firmly behind his ambition, clearing his pathway to the nomination. A Biden adviser said his team has had a strong relationship with Democratic leaders in Congress.

Talks have narrowed to a two-year spending deal that would raise the debt ceiling for that amount of time, extending it past the 2024 election, people familiar with the discussions said, adding that nothing has been completed. The deal under discussion would cap federal spending but would include increases for the military and veterans, one of the people said. Work requirements for benefits remain a sticking point, with Republicans in favor and the White House pushing back.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.) warned that House liberals would oppose any work requirements and permitting rules that back fossil-fuel projects—issues that were still sticking points in the talks as of Friday night. She called on the president to speak, saying, “I would like him to use his platform even more.”

Liberals have pushed Biden to act unilaterally to use the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling, a step Biden has refused because such a step would likely be litigated in court. Those on the far left of the Democratic caucus won’t likely be needed to pass a debt-ceiling bill, given that McCarthy will focus on getting as many Republicans as possible.

The administration opposes any policy that would increase poverty or reduce healthcare access, a person familiar with the White House’s thinking said.

Biden spoke briefly before a meeting with McCarthy on Monday, but then didn’t make any public comments until Thursday. Meanwhile, McCarthy stepped up television appearances and spontaneous news conferences, consistently repeating the same points, including that he tried to start negotiations with the White House in February, that the administration refused to negotiate and that the federal government needs to cut back on spending.

The delay in starting talks was the product of scheduling complications, a monthslong internal debate between GOP lawmakers about what should be included in their plan and longstanding resistance by Biden to negotiating with Republicans on the debt ceiling, which he has said should be separate from talks on spending.

With Biden relatively quiet, Jeffries took a more aggressive approach, declaring Wednesday that House Republicans “are determined to either extract deep, painful cuts that will hurt the health, the safety and the well-being of everyday Americans, or crash the economy, default on our debt and trigger a painful recession.”

Some Democrats acknowledged that the White House faced challenges in communicating on this topic. “Unfortunately on messaging, we haven’t done as well, because we thought we were dealing with people who actually wanted to negotiate,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D., Wis.).

The person familiar with the White House’s thinking said it was a strategic choice for the president to limit his public engagement because the administration wanted to allow negotiators to do their work. The White House was also working closely with Jeffries and coordinated with him in what was described as a good-cop-bad-cop approach.

This past week, some top House Democrats began lashing out against any emerging deal, with Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, rallying a group of activists gathered outside the Capitol, with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) clapping behind her.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) stressed that a deal will need a significant number of Democrats because McCarthy won’t be able to pass it with just Republican votes. “Kevin McCarthy and Republicans are trying to cut veterans’ healthcare; if they’re trying to cut and threaten to stop people’s Social Security or Medicare, if they want to cut education, they can do it with their votes,” she said.

The person familiar with the White House’s thinking said negotiators know the final deal must be something that attracts some House Democratic votes. Any such bill will also need to pass the Democratic-led Senate.

Some Democrats have expressed frustration that lawmakers were unable to raise the debt ceiling last year, before Republicans took control of the House. Congress passed an omnibus spending bill to fund the government through the fiscal year. Lawmakers put off dealing with the debt limit.

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