WASHINGTON — Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Thursday that House Republicans are prepared to pass their own debt ceiling bill if President Joe Biden won't agree to negotiate with him over raising the nation's borrowing limit.
He said the Republican conference is “very close” to agreement on the issue — “and if the president doesn’t act, we will.”
McCarthy said a House debt ceiling bill would reflect the contours of his letter to Biden this week that proposed extending a limit on borrowing with provisions to cut and cap discretionary spending, recapture unspent Covid relief funds and establish new work requirements for federal benefits, along with energy and border legislation.
McCarthy's remarks represent a significant twist in the stalemate over the debt ceiling. It is the first time he has said the GOP-led House can act on its own to avert default in response to Biden's saying that paying the country's bills is nonnegotiable and that he won't grant Republicans any policy concessions for it.
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McCarthy has insisted on negotiations and avoided saying the House would act without Biden's buy-in. He oversees a slim majority and would have a difficult time passing a debt limit bill with only Republican votes. Such a bill would then be sent to the Democratic-controlled Senate and need Biden’s signature to become law.
“We have been reasonable, responsible, asked to sit down with the president for months. He is making the decision that he wants to put the economy in jeopardy. I don’t know what more I can do,” McCarthy said. “I would bring the lunch to the White House. I would make it soft food if that’s what he wants. It doesn’t matter.”
Does McCarthy have the votes?
Some lawmakers doubt that Republicans can go it alone in the House.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chair of the Rules Committee, said Republicans will “absolutely” need some Democratic votes to get any debt limit bill passed through the closely divided chamber.
“We need some restraints on spending," he said. "And Democrats — the only place they seem to want to restrain spending is in defense. And the only place we want to spend is in defense, and obviously veterans. So, again, two sides have to sit down and craft a deal."
In response to McCarthy's letter this week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden “welcomes a separate conversation” about budget policy but not linked to paying the bills Congress has legally imposed on the country.
“It’s time for Republicans to stop playing games, pass a clean debt ceiling bill and quit threatening our economic recovery,” she said.
Democratic leaders are supporting Biden’s position, saying Congress should pass a “clean” debt limit bill with no strings attached and negotiate spending policy separately on a government funding bill.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said there is nothing for Democrats to negotiate with until Republicans craft a plan and prove they have the votes in the House to pass it.
"He doesn’t name anything specific at all. So if they were to sit down, you’d have to ask yourself, what are Speaker McCarthy and the president going to talk about — the weather?" Schumer told reporters this week. "We have a plan. We want to pass the debt ceiling without hostage-taking, without brinksmanship, just get it done like we’ve done under both Presidents Trump and Biden. They still don’t have a plan."
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., said that if Democrats wanted a clean debt limit increase, they should have passed it last year while they had control of Congress.
"Joe Biden could have had his clean debt ceiling six months ago. He chose not to do that. So now, FAFO," Donalds said Thursday, using an initialism for the phrase "f--- around and find out." "Now he's got to deal with House Republicans. And we're gonna work, we are going to make sure that we reform and cut unnecessary spending to get our country back on track."