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Biden prepares to take debt ceiling battle to vulnerable GOP lawmakers

In the congressional battle to raise the debt ceiling, a White House strategy targets swing district Republicans to pressure House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
President Joe Biden in Washington on April 20, 2023.
President Joe Biden in Washington on April 20.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden meets with the top Republican leaders in Congress this week to discuss the debt ceiling in an effort to avoid a catastrophic default on the nation’s debt, he’s also preparing to take the fight directly to some of the rank-and-file GOP lawmakers whose votes could become crucial.

Biden’s planned campaign-style trip to suburban New York on Wednesday — a day after he meets with congressional leaders — is the latest move in a White House strategy to pressure House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in the spending battle in the soft underbelly of his fragile majority: GOP House members in competitive districts Biden carried in November. 

Biden is traveling to the Hudson River Valley district represented by Mike Lawler, a freshman Republican who defeated Democratic incumbent Sean Patrick Maloney in November. Lawler was one of five New York Republicans who managed to flip their seats in the midterm elections by zeroing in on inflation and crime, two key issues that hurt Democrats in the polls.

Lawler joined Republicans last month in rallying behind his party’s debt package, the McCarthy bill dubbed the Limit, Save, Grow Act, which would raise the debt limit, curb spending and repeal key pieces of Biden’s agenda.

“House Republicans that brand themselves as moderate lined up with the most extreme MAGA members on this vote, and we are making sure their constituents are aware of the true nature of their priorities,” White House communications director Ben LaBolt said. “It’s up to them whether they will continue to side with MAGA extremists or come together to ensure that the country avoids default.”

Democrats have referred to the GOP debt bill — which is dead on arrival in the Democratic-led Senate — as the “Default on America Act.” Ahead of Biden’s visit, Lawler stood by his vote for the GOP package, which represented the opening bid in negotiations that have yet to gain steam.

“My constituents agree that we cannot continue to sustain spending at these levels. It’s part of the reason that I won,” Lawler said in a phone interview Saturday. “I talked about the need to rein in reckless spending and to reverse much of what Joe Biden did.”

Keeping Lawler’s seat will be critical for Republicans’ chances to retain their narrow five-seat majority in the House, and other moderates are coming under pressure from both sides in the debt ceiling fight. Democrats see them as potential votes for what’s known as a discharge petition, an emergency step that would bypass House GOP leadership to force a vote on a “clean” debt ceiling increase.

Even if a clean debt ceiling increase could pass in the House, it would face a battle in the Senate, where 43 Republicans signed a letter to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., over the weekend saying they wouldn’t vote for “any bill that raises the debt ceiling without substantive spending and budget reforms.”

Asked whether he could support a two-year increase put forward by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Lawler said he was “not going to talk about hypotheticals.”

“But the bottom line where we are right now, we have not defaulted. We have time to negotiate,” he said. “If the president and Chuck Schumer are counting on that as the solution, I think they are miscalculating.

“Of course, the objective is to absolutely 100% avoid default,” Lawler said after Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned last week that the deadline to extend the debt ceiling or face the first U.S. default could be as early as June 1.

Biden said in an interview Friday that he’s prepared to negotiate with Republicans “in detail” about an overall budget bill, but he insisted that the debt ceiling discussion be completely separate, and he reiterated his call to pass a “clean” increase, without restrictions. He called McCarthy an “honest man” under pressure from “MAGA Republicans” and noted it took him 15 votes to secure the speakership in January.

Asked for a response to the president’s planned trip, McCarthy spokesperson Mark Bednar told NBC News that Biden “should focus his attention on not bumbling into default rather than traveling around the country to shout at Americans who know that spending has gotten out of control.”

A new White House analysis of the GOP debt bill’s potential impacts argued that benefits would be cut for tens of thousands of veterans across a sampling of 18 congressional districts if the GOP vision became law — most of them the same swing seats. 

Lawler accused the White House of “misleading the public” about the GOP debt package. 

“There’s nothing in the bill that specifically cuts anything,” said Lawler, whose district in the lower Hudson River Valley borders one of the state’s largest VA medical centers. “The president talked often about how he is bipartisan and he wanted to work with Republicans to cut deals. Well, here’s an opportunity to work together.”

The VA hospital is in the congressional district represented by Pat Ryan, a Democrat who won a special election last year to represent a hotly contested swing district.

“It’s a safe assumption that you’ve cut everything you didn’t say you’re going to protect in the plan,” Ryan said Sunday. “And nothing pisses me off more than when you mess with veterans. Every American needs to know that this bill proposed 22% cuts to veterans’ care across the country.”

Ryan, an Iraq War veteran in his first term, was the only freshman to join Biden on his trip to Ireland last month. He, unlike some other vulnerable Democrats, has publicly committed to back the president for another term.

“We need to act quickly to avoid default. Republicans threatening economic catastrophe while holding health care for our veterans hostage is not the answer,” he said.

White House officials have expressed confidence publicly and privately that the GOP’s brinkmanship will come at a severe political cost. But given the administration’s dire warnings about the potential economic fallout of even a brief default, there’s significant risk of fallout for Biden’s re-election campaign, which is expected to focus on how his economic agenda has delivered for Americans in all income brackets.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday found Biden’s approval rating at an all-time low: 36%. By 54%-36%, more voters said former President Donald Trump did a better job handling the economy in his four years than Biden did in his first two. 

Even as the White House has insisted the debt ceiling should be handled separately from a discussion over spending, White House officials and congressional Democrats are discussing moving a short-term debt increase that would give both sides more time to negotiate on parallel tracks before the usual Oct. 1 deadline for Congress to pass annual appropriations bills. 

Asked whether he would be open to a short-term debt limit hike, Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., a close ally of McCarthy, said Sunday he believes “everything’s on the table at this point.” 

“The key thing that has to be in this equation is addressing our fiscal house, short-term and long-term,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”