Biden Voices Optimism on Debt Talks Despite Sharp Statements by Both Sides

On Saturday, President Biden played down the loud statements made by both sides in the debt and spending talks gripping Washington, dismissing them as little more than the typical stance for any negotiation and expressing confidence that he could still get there. to an agreement with the Republicans to increase the debt ceiling.

Speaking on the sidelines of a summit meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, Biden told reporters he was not worried about the debt talks in his country. “Not at all,” he said. He later added: “I still think we’ll be able to avoid a default and do something decent.”

But on Sunday morning in Japan, Biden aides sounded the alarm again. They said Biden had directed his team to schedule a call with Chairman Kevin McCarthy on Sunday, after Biden’s meetings with the Group of 7 leaders.

Biden’s comments came after a tumultuous period of ramming and parrying across oceans. On Friday, McCarthy abruptly declared a “pause” in talks aimed at raising the debt ceiling to avoid a national default while he pursues ways to reduce the deficit, only to send his negotiators back to the table later in the day. But that session broke down after just an hour, with the White House issuing a fiery statement accusing Republicans of sticking to “extreme MAGA priorities.”

Republican leaders continued to blame White House negotiators on Saturday for what they called a deterioration in the discussions. McCarthy told reporters on Capitol Hill that he did not believe negotiations could “move forward” until Biden returned to the United States.

“The White House is backing down on negotiations,” he wrote on Twitter. In a separate post, he blamed Mr. Biden for the impasse, stating that the president does not “think there is a single dollar of savings in the federal government budget.”

The president essentially called all that fair theater that no one should take too seriously. “It goes in stages,” he told reporters during a meeting with Australia’s prime minister. “And what happens is that the first meetings were not as progressive, the second ones were, the third one was, and then what happens is that the carriers”, that is, the negotiators, “go back to the directors and tell them that this it’s what you’re thinking and then people file new claims.”

Noting that he has been through many such negotiations in his half century in Washington, he made it clear that he believed such a position to be little more than show business, presumably including the statement his own staff had issued just an hour earlier. Each side, he pointed out, needs to take a firm stand to get the best deal for itself. That, he added, doesn’t mean they can’t eventually reach a consensus.

Biden’s public confidence in the prospects for a deal has sparked discontent among some liberals who fear he will give away too much to McCarthy Republicans, including job requirements for homeless relief recipients. As it is, the president has essentially stopped insisting that he would not negotiate spending restrictions as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling; the White House maintains that the spending talks now underway are theoretically separate from the issue of raising the debt ceiling, a characterization few accept.

The two sides have reached an agreement in talks over the past week, including on recovering some unspent funds from previously passed Covid relief legislation. They also broadly agreed to some sort of cap on discretionary federal spending for at least the next two years. But they’re obsessed with the details of those caps, including how much to spend across the board next fiscal year on discretionary programs, and how to split that spending between the military and other programs.

The latest White House offer would keep both military spending and other spending, which includes education, scientific research, environmental protection and more, constant from the current fiscal year to the next fiscal year. Republicans have proposed a nominal decrease in total discretionary spending next year, but it’s not evenly distributed; in his plan, military spending would continue to increase.

Far-right lawmakers at McCarthy’s conference, who have increasingly voiced concern that the speaker would agree to a deal to freeze spending at current levels, rather than last year’s levels, seemed to enjoy the rhetoric more and more. most challenging of the Republican leader. Representative Chip Roy of Texas, a key conservative, posted with approval an article on Twitter about the failed talks, saying that House Republicans were “fighting for the military, veterans, border security and fiscal responsibility.”

For days, Biden and aides who traveled with him in Japan expressed optimism that they could reach a deal by the time the president returns to Washington on Sunday or shortly thereafter, in plenty of time to raise the debt ceiling before the nation do it. otherwise, it will hit a default as early as June 1. It was not clear when the negotiators planned to meet again. The White House has essentially cleared the president’s agenda for the next week, presumably to allow for more talks.

Mr. Biden’s comments to reporters on Saturday left a series of mixed messages in a matter of hours. The White House began the day in Japan with a briefing by Karine Jean-Pierre, the press secretary, who offered a more measured assessment of the talks than the positive tone of recent days, saying a deal would hinge on whether Mr. McCarthy will “negotiate in good faith” and that everyone must recognize that “you don’t get everything you want.”

He stressed that “we need both Republicans and Democrats,” alluding to concerns that congressional Democrats could walk away from a potential deal if they perceive the president as having gone too far. But he denied that the White House was more pessimistic and used the word “optimistic” 14 times during his briefing.

Three hours later, after Biden had spoken to his negotiators in Washington, his communications director, Ben LaBolt, issued a very different statement in which he never used the word “optimistic.”

“Republicans are holding the economy hostage and driving us to the brink of default, which could cost millions of jobs and send the country into recession after two years of steady job and wage growth,” LaBolt said.

“Republicans,” he added, “are recycling a thinly watered down version of their extreme budget proposal” that would result in spending cuts in education, law enforcement and health care, while reversing plans to hire more IRS agents to combat tax fraud and extend tax exemptions approved under the presidency of Donald J. Trump. He added that any deal must include tax increases for the wealthy and corporations, not just spending cuts.

“There remains a way forward to reach a reasonable bipartisan agreement if the Republicans come back to the table to negotiate in good faith,” LaBolt said. “But President Biden will not accept a MAGA wish list of extreme priorities that would punish middle class and needy Americans and set back our economic progress.”

The federal government reached its statutory debt ceiling of $31.4 trillion months ago. The Treasury Department has been employing a series of accounting maneuvers to avoid defaulting, but has said it could run out of options on June 1, putting the nation in default for the first time by defaulting on its obligations, unless the Congress and the president reached an agreement.

catie edmondson contributed reporting from Washington and Jim Tankersley from Hiroshima, Japan.