Finance & Tax

The eight-year gap splitting negotiators on a debt deal

Staff-level talks between the White House and Congress are beginning to look promising. But big divides remain.

President Joe Biden leaves the stage after speaking on the debt limit during an event at SUNY Westchester Community College, Wednesday, May 10, 2023, in Valhalla, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Thursday’s postponement of debt-ceiling talks between congressional leaders and President Joe Biden in favor of ongoing staff-level meetings left Washington with promising, if faint, evidence that a deal might be possible to avoid the calamity of a federal government default.

Still, the parties remain years apart, literally, on a potential deal as Speaker Kevin McCarthy continued to hit the White House for the delay.

“I have not seen from [them] a seriousness of the White House that they want to deal… He ignored us now for 100 days. He thought this problem would go away,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said at a press conference Thursday. “The White House didn’t cancel the meeting. All of the leaders decided it’s probably the best of our interest to let the staff meet again before we get back.”

Press conference jabs aside, the move to punt Thursday’s White House meeting to next week — framed by both sides as a sign of good progress — puts the onus back on staff-level talks, which will continue Friday. The multi-day flurry of meetings has thus far yielded negotiations that look more and more like they could end in a spending-caps deal, a bargain not unlike the one that ended the 2011 “fiscal cliff” standoff between Republicans and then-President Barack Obama.

The biggest obstacle to such a deal may be length, with House Republicans thinking much lot more long-term than Biden and his Democratic negotiators.

White House officials are privately aiming for a two-year deal that would lift the debt limit and impose new limits on discretionary spending, according to people familiar with the conversations. Some of McCarthy’s deputies, however, made clear Thursday that they’re dreaming much bigger — 10 years, to be precise.

And anything less than that, the GOP lawmakers warned, might not land the votes.

“I would be surprised if a two-year deal could gain support of the conference,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) said Thursday. “A two-year deal would be hard to stomach for most members.”

Besides spending caps, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), McCarthy’s de facto debt ceiling deputy, laid out three other elements of a deal to be struck with the White House. Conspicuously absent from Graves’ list of tenets was another big GOP ask – rescinding Biden’s signature Inflation Reduction Act legislation, a hard “no” for Democrats.

1. Energy permitting: White House advisor John Podesta laid out Democrats’ own priorities on this earlier this week. Yet most on the Hill are highly skeptical. Can a deal be reached in just a handful of weeks? Most believe a larger deal comes later. Republicans (and some Democrats, like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia) want to streamline and expedite domestic energy production projects and ease permitting on pipelines and refineries. Democrats broadly agree that approving projects takes too long, but would rather focus on renewable projects.

2. Covid clawbacks: Graves said Republicans are feeling positive about the engagement they’re getting from the White House, with Biden himself seeming open earlier this week to pulling back unspent Covid relief funding. But a big fight is already brewing on exactly where they would wrestle that cash back from. There were at least six bills passed from 2020-2022 with COVID aid, which means plenty of opportunities for disagreement.

3. Work requirements: Democrats describe this to us as the least likely tenet of a deal. And as with permitting, anything on the legislative side would take a lot more than a few weeks to get into law. Biden is unlikely to agree to accept major new restrictions on programs like Medicaid and food assistance, but Republicans fought to expand the age group covered by work requirements for food stamps and Medicaid in their proposal.

But even the sniff of progress that comes with ongoing talks left some veterans of the 2011 deal to sound warnings about solving yet another fiscal cliff with spending caps.

“I saw what happened with sequestration back in 2011 and afterwards on that, so as an appropriator, I hope – careful on that,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said, adding that Congress’s share of federal spending is a small fraction compared to the total U.S. budget.

“We only deal with 1/3 of the whole budget and the rest of it is automatic,” he said.

Caitlin Emma, Nicholas Wu, Jordain Carney, Adam Cancryn and Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.