WASHINGTON — House Democratic anxieties are flaring over President Joe Biden's negotiations with Republicans to avert default.
Some Democrats fear his limited public statements on the debt ceiling amount to ceding the messaging war to Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and his deputies, who have been ubiquitous in recent days in casting blame on the White House. Other Democrats say Biden is wrong to discredit the 14th Amendment option to tackle the debt limit unilaterally, as the GOP engages in what Democrats see as a hostage standoff.
Ultimately, their angst is about whom the public will blame if a deal can't be reached, or if the terms of any agreement are draconian. Without a more aggressive effort to talk to the public, Democrats worry that voters will focus their anger on Biden — and them.
One House Democratic lawmaker said the White House needs to do a better job harnessing "the levers of communication of the presidency, which they haven’t effectively utilized up to this point."
"The president needs to fully utilize the bully pulpit, the power of the presidency, to get the message across to the American people what’s really at stake here. As of this time, the American people haven’t been fully informed what is truly at stake by what default means for this country," the lawmaker said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly critique the president.
“This is one where there’s no substitute for the president of the United States," the lawmaker added.
Democratic hand-wringing about Biden is nothing new, but it comes at a critical moment for a president who just launched his bid for a second term. Negotiations with McCarthy's team have sputtered, and there are just eight days left before the Treasury Department says the U.S. could run out of money and default on its debt.
Part of the reason for anxiety on Capitol Hill is that many Democrats are not dialed into the back and forth of the talks.
Another House Democrat, who represents a swing district, lamented that Biden and the White House have only talked in front of the television cameras about raising the debt ceiling, but haven’t pressed their case for cutting future spending — an issue that plays well in competitive districts like the one the moderate represents.
“It does seem to me like Republicans are beating us to the message at this point,” the source continued. “The White House needs to recognize that its message is not getting through and take some pretty swift and decisive action to get out there and make sure that more people are hearing that message.”
Progressives see 2024 consequences
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said Biden could pay a price with progressive voters — who turned out in big numbers and were instrumental to his narrow electoral college win in 2020 — if he cuts a budget deal that allows Republicans to target the left's priorities.
“The president — I’m sure he’s thinking about the fact that it was a very vibrant, diverse coalition that put them in the White House, and he’s going to need that vibrant, diverse coalition again for 2024,” the Progressive Caucus chair said, warning about “the impact of taking a bad deal and allowing Republicans to put forward these absolutely unreasonable positions.”
“I’ve been very supportive of his leadership over the last few years. Everything that we got done was done because of a partnership and trust and respect between the White House and and the Democratic caucus, including the progressive base,” she said. “So, I think he just needs to remember that because I think the backlash will be significant if somehow we were to get bullied into a bad deal. I think it’s very bad for the people of America; I also think it’s a terrible dynamic for negotiations going forward.”
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., said the president should remember "those that have been supportive of him and have been pushing his agenda," as well as reach out to the "huge numbers" of young people who weren't yet 18 in 2020 but can vote now.
She warned that it's "not going to be helpful" to Biden's re-election coalition in 2024 if he strikes a deal with McCarthy that slashes domestic funding on things like education programs.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a Biden ally and leadership member, said the president should “negotiate, negotiate, negotiate” and then use the 14th Amendment to pay the bills unilaterally if time runs out. It's an option many progressives have pushed Biden to use.
White House strategy
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday the president has been clear and outspoken on the issue for months.
“You’ve heard from the president multiple times during the last five months. He’s been very clear,” she said. “You’ve heard from the president; you’ve heard from the economic team; you’ve heard from Democrats, the leadership in the House, in the Senate talk — speak to this about the urgency, about Congress actually needing to act and doing their constitutional duty.”
Biden’s press secretary was quick to embrace a sharper message by congressional Democrats on Tuesday, telling reporters that Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., was speaking for the party when he attacked “MAGA” Republicans over debt limit “gamesmanship.”
Asked if Jeffries was undermining the president’s work to reach a deal, Jean-Pierre responded that the two sides were “aligned” and had been for months. Filling the messaging void, Jeffries on Wednesday will hold his third news conference in three days about the debt crisis.
A new Monmouth poll released Wednesday found that 34% approve of Biden's handling of the debt limit, while 32% approve of the way Democrats in Congress have handled it, and just 29% approve of how Republicans in Congress have handled it. Meanwhile, a Marist poll found that 45% of U.S. adults would primarily blame Republicans for a default, while 43% would primarily blame Biden.
The White House has seemed uncertain about how to deploy Vice President Kamala Harris. During the debt ceiling fight in 2011, then-Vice President Biden was tapped by Barack Obama to help negotiate a deal. Harris, herself a former senator, has not played nearly as prominent a role.
Last week, she joined Biden in the Oval Office for a meeting with congressional leaders — a sign that she might be getting more publicly involved. But when Biden later went to Hiroshima, Japan, for a Group of Seven summit, Harris did not appear to be publicly engaged on the issue. At one point, she left town and flew to Los Angeles where she toured a nonprofit warehouse that distributes supplies to families and also watched Brittney Griner's return to the WNBA.
At a press briefing in Hiroshima on Saturday, Jean-Pierre was asked why Harris wasn’t in the Capitol joining in the negotiations.
“She has been in regular conversations as well and has been in conversations with the president,” Jean-Pierre said. “He has taken her consult and listened to her advice, as he always does on many issues.”
Democrats angry with McCarthy
For many House Democrats, the main frustration is with McCarthy and Republicans for taking compromises off the table — such as new tax revenues and cuts to military spending — which leaves little else to cut other than domestic discretionary spending. He has rejected a spending freeze that would amount to an inflation-adjusted cut.
“Kevin McCarthy has more red lines than Crayola,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., the top Democrat on the Budget Committee.
Biden was side by side with McCarthy on Monday at the White House when the president said revenue-raising measures needed to be part of the conversation, even as he said spending needed to be cut. “We should be looking at tax loopholes and making sure the wealthy pay their fair share,” Biden said.
Asked Wednesday why he isn’t offering Democrats any concessions for lifting the debt ceiling, McCarthy said the Republican-pushed spending caps and tougher work requirements for federal benefits were the concessions. “If AOC and Bernie Sanders is going to run their party, that’s not my fault,” he told reporters, referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., the third-ranked House Democrat and an appropriator, said it’s mathematically impossible to meet all of McCarthy’s demands and protect funding for veterans.
“It makes it increasingly difficult to reach the budget numbers that he wants to reach,” Aguilar said. “It’s going to lead to over 30% cuts to everything else from Head Start to Meals on Wheels.”