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Biden and McCarthy spoke by phone ahead of debt ceiling meeting

The previously unreported conversation between the president and GOP House speaker on Sunday was initiated by McCarthy, two sources told NBC News.

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., spoke by phone with President Joe Biden on Sunday night ahead of the debt limit negotiations this past Tuesday, according to two sources familiar with the previously unreported discussion.

The conversation was initiated by McCarthy in hopes of improving the prospects of a deal, the sources told NBC News. Biden also spoke by phone over the past weekend with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., according to one of the sources.

A spokesperson for McCarthy confirmed that the Sunday call took place, but declined to provide any additional detail on it. The White House declined to comment.

President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in Washington on March 17, 2023.
President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in Washington on March 17, 2023.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

The conversation came after more than three months without significant negotiations between the two men about the looming deadline. Biden and McCarthy had little previous relationship, and the Speaker had grown publicly frustrated by the president's unwillingness to meet and negotiate the debt ceiling.

Before Biden invited congressional leaders to the White House for the meeting on Tuesday, McCarthy and Biden had not held in-person talks for 97 days. During that time, Biden vowed not to engage in bipartisan negotiations until the Republican-led House approved its own debt limit plan, which passed on April 26.

Biden and congressional leaders left Tuesday's meeting at the Oval Office having failed to resolve the impending default crisis, but planned to meet again Friday. That follow-up meeting has now been postponed until next week, three sources told NBC News.

“That’s why three months ago, I came to the President. Can we find a way? I know we’re both going to have to give and take,” McCarthy told reporters after the meeting Tuesday. “So, let’s sit down together, find places we can agree upon and get this done. Because they ignored us, we had to go on our own and we passed a bill to do that.”

A source described the mood in the room during the meeting as “tense and serious,” adding that it did little to break the impasse over the issue in Washington.

But ongoing staff level conversations that began in the days leading up to the meeting have given some lawmakers hope for a deal.

“You need a certain number of these performative meetings before you get to productive meetings,” Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., a close McCarthy ally told reporters Thursday. “So actually, getting the performative meetings out of the way is helpful."

"Instructing staff to actually sit down and negotiate was also helpful and not a foregone conclusion," he said.