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Biden, McCarthy, once breakfast mates, wrangle over US debt

WASHINGTON (AP) — Not long ago, Joe Biden and Republican leader Kevin McCarthy chatted over breakfast in Biden’s vice presidential home at the Naval Observatory.

Biden was then eager to “maintain ties with the opposition party,” as he writes in his memoir, and the new House Majority Leader often arrived with other GOP lawmakers in tow.

But now, with a potential sovereign debt crisis looming, those morning meetings in 2015 seem like a political life away as Democratic President Biden and McCarthy, the new House Speaker, prepare for their first official meeting Wednesday at the White House.

“You know, when I met him as vice president, he was always anxious to sit down and talk,” McCarthy recalled to The Associated Press before the meeting. “He’s always been someone who wants to try to find solutions, work together.”

Biden has not signaled such perpetual hospitality this time as newly emboldened House Republicans grapple for a risky debt ceiling showdown.

At a fundraiser in New York on Tuesday, Biden called McCarthy a “decent man” who is drawn to demands from unruly Republicans.

“He made commitments that are just absolutely insane” to win the speaker’s gavel, Biden said.

Biden and McCarthy, two affable leaders known for their willingness to strike deals, are charging headlong into uncomfortable political terrain in stubborn negotiations over the nation’s debt ceiling.

A generation apart — McCarthy, 58, has been in Congress just a third of the time Biden, 80, has held elected office — the two men are intimately familiar with Washington’s ways and positions of power.

Both have built political brands on their ability to meet with all comers and do business where none were likely. They have shown mutual respect during their limited interactions during Biden’s presidency, according to a senior White House official. And both have been here before, veterans of the last fiscal showdown in 2011, when Biden, as Barack Obama’s vice president, attempted to negotiate an endgame to a standoff with McCarthy’s predecessors in Congress.

This time, both political and economic interests are evident as Biden considers another run for the White House and McCarthy scrambles to keep his new job as Speaker of the House, including his Republicans on the right flank.

“Just like 2011, it’s not going to be a real Kumbaya,” said Neil Bradley, vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce and former top adviser to former GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Bradley, who had attended previous Biden talks, said, “These are both seasoned leaders who understand what it takes to get things done in Washington.”

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has informed Congress that the debt ceiling, now set at $31 trillion, must be raised to allow further borrowing to pay the country’s already accumulated bills. While the Treasury has been able to take “extraordinary measures” to temporarily avoid a default, these are only expected to last until June.

The debt ceiling showdown carries echoes but also differences from 2011, when the Republican “tea party” majority in the House of Representatives came to power, demanding budget cuts and threatening a potentially catastrophic federal default.

Citing these difficult negotiations, Biden has been reluctant to negotiate with Republicans in McCarthy’s new House of Representatives. Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, the White House released a memo setting out the “two questions” Biden will ask the Republican leader.

“Will the speaker adhere to the fundamental principle that the United States will never meet its financial obligations?” reads one of the questions, in part. And: “When will Speaker McCarthy and the House Republicans release their budget?”

The memo from Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, and Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, noted that Biden would cut the government’s budget on 9 How Exactly Republicans Will Cut Federal Spending , is too high in their opinion.

McCarthy almost invited himself to the White House when he pushed for the Biden meeting. And he’s made it clear he’s ready to negotiate, announcing over the weekend that he won’t propose cuts to Medicare or Social Security as Republicans seek to cut federal spending under a debt-ceiling deal.

As McCarthy comes to the negotiating table with the power of the new representative majority behind him, he too is seen as empty-handed.

It’s not at all clear that the new speaker will be able to provide the votes needed by divided Republicans in Congress on a debt deal. He has promised his GOP hardliners a return to fiscal 2022 spending levels, but even that may not be enough for some of them to cut the budget.

It’s a potential repeat of the 2011-12 fiscal showdown, when the Obama administration negotiated with Republicans before eventually settling on a deal Biden brokered with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to quell the crisis alleviate.

“We all stand behind Kevin and wish him well in the negotiations,” McConnell said Tuesday, his own Republican minority in the Senate.

“The deal, of course, has to be negotiated between the majority of the House of Representatives and the Democratic President for it to survive over here.”

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, RS.D., said that Biden and McCarthy “do not have the historical relationship that Senator McConnell and Biden have had over the years, but I think circumstances require and sometimes dictate that people have to come together – whether they like it or not.”

Like the Republicans, the Democrats are skeptical about dealing with the opposite party. They’re urging Biden to strike a hard bargain against compromise.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal said Biden “has seen who he’s negotiating with over the last two years—they’re not people who are actually trying to negotiate something that makes sense for working people. “

The president, she added, is “such a champion of working people and reversing inequality” that any budget-cut deal with the Republicans “would undo all that work.”

The refusal to negotiate with Republicans was a foreign word to Biden, who has credited his decades of experience building relationships with lawmakers, governors and administrations of both parties.

In many ways, Biden and McCarthy are picking up where they left off at those breakfast meetings.

“I think he’s going to start listening more than talking, getting to know Speaker McCarthy a little better as a person and exploring what their shared priorities might be,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close ally of the President.

Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a former history professor, said of the two: “They are career civil servants. You are both very political. I think they’re both well hit guys. It seems to me that they will have a reasonably good discussion.”


Associated Press writer Josh Boak contributed from New York.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

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