Biden and McCarthy strike positive tone after debt limit talks, but no deal yet

US Capitol

by Jennifer Shutt, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

May 22, 2023

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy left their closely watched meeting Monday without an agreement on government spending or the debt limit, prolonging a stalemate that could soon disrupt Americans’ everyday lives as well as the global economy. 

Both struck a positive tone Monday, though neither divulged details about what remains unresolved nor how soon they hope to reach an agreement. McCarthy said negotiators will be working “through the night.”

The two leaders have little time to broker a bipartisan deal on the debt ceiling that can pass both chambers of Congress before June 1, the first day the country could enter default under projections from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

“I felt we had a productive discussion. We don’t have an agreement yet, but I did feel the discussion was productive in areas that we have differences of opinion,” McCarthy said outside the White House after the meeting. 

McCarthy said the “tone” during their conversation was “better than any other time we’ve had discussions.”

“I felt it was productive because look, we both know, we’ve walked through this for a long time, where our difference is. We’re explaining them, we’re giving a give and take of what we think would be best for moving the country forward,” McCarthy said. “We still will have some philosophical differences, but I felt it was productive in that manner.”

Biden said in a written statement released after the meeting that “the only way to move forward is in good faith toward a bipartisan agreement.”

 “While there are areas of disagreement, the Speaker and I, and his lead negotiators Chairman McHenry and Congressman Graves, and our staffs will continue to discuss the path forward,” he added, referring to House Financial Services Chairman Patrick McHenry of North Carolina and Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves. 

Biden said Monday before the meeting began that he was “optimistic” the two could make progress toward bipartisan legislation since they both agreed default wasn’t on the table. 

Biden reiterated he hopes the deal includes changes to the tax code, stressing a pledge he’s made throughout his presidency not to increase taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 annually.

“We need to cut spending. But here’s the disagreement, I think we should be looking at tax loopholes and making sure the wealthy pay their fair share,” Biden said.

“We still have some disagreements, but I think we may be able to get where we have to go,” Biden added. “We both know we have a significant responsibility.”

McCarthy said after the meeting that Republicans weren’t considering changes to revenue.

“The problem is not revenue, the problem is spending. So if you want to know where our differences have been, it’s always been the same place,” McCarthy said.

Biden said Sunday during a press conference in Japan following the G7 summit that he offered $1 trillion in spending cuts to Republicans, though the two sides were still at odds over whether to make any changes to the tax code. 

Previous meetings

The one-on-one meeting between Biden and McCarthy on Monday follows efforts in early and mid-May by the four congressional leaders to broker a bipartisan deal during meetings in the Oval Office. 

After the last round of talks, Biden and McCarthy became the top negotiators and appointed key confidants to work on a deal.

Graves and McHenry have been meeting almost daily on Capitol Hill with White House budget director Shalanda Young and Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president.

McHenry, Young and Ricchetti were all in the Monday meeting that lasted for nearly 90 minutes, as were other White House aides. 

“We’ve had tough meetings. We’ve had difficult meetings. This meeting was productive,” McHenry said afterward outside the White House. “It told us, as the negotiating team, a little more of the details we need … to get to a package; a package that can pass Congress.”

McHenry said it was helpful to listen to Biden and McCarthy have a “meaningful discussion” and speak directly about their views on the issues they’re all trying to sort through.  

McHenry later repeated a frequently used saying on Capitol Hill — nothing is resolved until everything is resolved.  

“No one is going to agree to anything until we have a finalized deal,” McHenry said. 

Potential hit on financial markets, credit downgrade

Yellen again said she expects the country could default on its debts as soon as June 1 without a bipartisan deal, according to a letter she sent congressional leaders Monday. 

Yellen wrote that “Treasury will no longer be able to satisfy all of the government’s obligations if Congress has not acted to raise or suspend the debt limit by early June, and potentially as early as June 1.”

A default would have widespread repercussions for the federal government, which would not be able to pay all of its bills in full and on time. The financial markets and global economy would be damaged and the federal government could experience a credit downgrade similar to what happened amid debt limit brinkmanship in 2011. 

Three experts from Moody’s Analytics wrote in a report released this month that under a short-term debt default, “financial markets will be roiled” and the U.S. would enter “a mild recession in the second half of this year.”

Employment during a short-term default would decline by 1.5 million jobs, leading the unemployment rate to increase from 3.4% to nearly 5%, they wrote. 

“Financial markets sell off but settle as investors take solace in lawmakers’ decision to quickly reverse course,” they add. “There is little long-term fallout on the economy, although global investors demand several basis points more in interest on Treasury debt to compensate for the meaningful risk that lawmakers may breach the debt limit again in the future.”

Chief Economist Mark Zandi, Senior Director Adam Kamins and Assistant Director Bernard Yaros wrote in the report that a long-term default that lasts through July would have a “cataclysmic” impact on the economy.

Under that timeline, the Treasury Department would have to cut $150 billion in federal spending and “as these cuts work through the economy, the hit to growth would be overwhelming,” they wrote. 

“The economic downturn that would ensue would be comparable to that suffered during the global financial crisis,” they added.

A longer default, they wrote, would cost the U.S. economy 7.8 million jobs, increasing unemployment to 8%. 

“Stock prices would fall by almost a fifth at the worst of the selloff, wiping out $10 trillion in household wealth,” the three add. “Treasury yields, mortgage rates, and other consumer and corporate borrowing rates would spike until the debt limit is resolved.” 

Deficit spending

The debt limit allows the Treasury Department to borrow money to pay for federal spending that isn’t paid for by taxes, fees, or other revenue. 

Congress has regularly raised the debt limit to a higher dollar amount or suspended the debt limit to a future date to allow the federal government to continue deficit spending on federal programs that are categorized as both mandatory and discretionary. 

Mandatory programs, like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, continue to run in the manner Congress set them up without going through the annual appropriations process. 

Discretionary programs, which fund the vast majority of federal departments and agencies, must get a new spending bill through the U.S. House and U.S. Senate each year if they want to make any changes to their funding or start funding new programs. 

Congress is about to undertake that process for the upcoming fiscal year with the House Appropriations Committee set to mark up its first bills this week, though the legislation is unlikely to get bipartisan support. 

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.