WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden met privately on Wednesday with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy for more than an hour — their first in-person meeting since the Republican won the gavel.
There were no signs of a breakthrough between the Democratic president and Republican speaker on the most consequential item on their mutual to-do list: preventing a debt ceiling breach and avoiding an economically calamitous default later this year.
“I respect the conversation we had together,” McCarthy told reporters at the White House after the meeting, calling it “a good conversation” that yielded “no agreements, no promises, except we will continue this conversation.”
“We had different perspectives, but we both laid out some of our vision of where we want to get to,” he said. “I can see where we can find common ground.”
He declined to divulge details, saying: “The president and I are trying to find a way that we can work together, and we will continue to do that.” Asked if Social Security and Medicare cuts are on the table, McCarthy said: “No, we’re not talking about that.”
In a readout of the meeting, the White House said the two men “covered a range of issues and President Biden underscored that he is eager to continue working across the aisle in good faith.” But the White House added: “President Biden made clear that, as every other leader in both parties in Congress has affirmed, it is their shared duty not to allow an unprecedented and economically catastrophic default.” It said Biden welcomes “a separate discussion” about reducing the debt.
Before the meeting, the White House demanded that McCarthy commit to avoiding default and that he lay out a GOP plan. Biden and his aides have said publicly that extending the debt ceiling is nonnegotiable.
McCarthy has not specified what Republicans want in exchange for extending the debt ceiling. “The one thing I do know: Our debt is too high, we have waste in our government.”
Ahead of the meeting, White House spokesman Andrew Bates accused Republicans of “threatening an unprecedented default unless they are paid a ransom of budget cuts they won’t name.”
The desire for specifics extends to some in the House GOP, too.
At a private House Republican conference meeting on Wednesday, Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas stood up and called on the McCarthy-led leadership team to get more specific about possible spending cuts, a source familiar with the meeting told NBC News.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters that McCarthy should write a bill and pass it in the House.
“Speaker McCarthy’s showing up at the White House today without a plan — it’s like sitting down at the table without any cards in your hand,” he told reporters. “We Democrats have a plan, as I mentioned: Raise the debt ceiling without brinksmanship or hostage-taking just as it has been done before.”
The White House has emphasized that it is willing to negotiate on budget policy but that those talks must be separated from the debt ceiling to prevent any chance of default. Biden's position comes after the Obama administration acceded to negotiations on the debt limit in 2011, which brought the U.S. to the brink of disaster. Obama, Biden and their advisers came to view it as a big mistake.
Ultimately, to avert a crisis, the House will have to pass a bill that Biden can sign and can pass the Democrat-controlled Senate. The early posturing from the White House and Republican leaders points to a potential sweet spot that satisfies each side's red line: a bill that includes provisions that the GOP can celebrate as a concession and Democrats can dismiss as a fig leaf.
Some Democratic allies of the president believe that Biden’s hard line will soften. They expect that he’ll wind up engaging in something that looks and sounds very much like a negotiation, whatever he chooses to call it. Biden is, by temperament, a dealmaker who has spent decades in politics forging agreements in which neither side gets everything it wants but comes away with something that’s satisfactory.
“There will be a wink or a nod or a handshake in areas where they can at least find some consensus,” predicted Leon Panetta, a former budget director in Bill Clinton’s presidency and later a Cabinet secretary in the Obama-Biden administration.
“Biden’s whole history over 40 years is being willing to negotiate,” Panetta added. “That’s why he’s been able to enjoy success on Capitol Hill: a willingness to negotiate. I suspect that there will be a process here of determining whether or not there is a sincere effort to really impose budget discipline.”
“There’s a lot of politics and posturing that’s always been involved with the debt limit. In the end, everybody does know that it has to pass. That’s the one certainty that’s always been there.”
One Democratic congressman warned that Biden risks looking obstinate if the White House appears to be shunning negotiations with Congress.
“I disagree with the posture of, ‘No negotiations,’” said the congressman, speaking on condition of anonymity to criticize the White House. “Call them ‘discussions.’ Don’t be afraid to say, ‘We’re having discussions.’”
“I understand what they’re doing with this dance: ‘Let the Republicans show their cards,'" the source said. "But I don’t like the posture of not engaging. I don’t think the public likes that answer.”