President Biden is trying to draw Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) into the debt limit talks in an apparent effort to undercut Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), but McConnell is insisting that McCarthy will be the Republican point person in the negotiations.
McConnell, who negotiated a deal with then-Vice President Biden to raise the debt limit in 2011, has repeatedly insisted that Biden and McCarthy need to strike a deal and that he would sit out the talks.
Yet McConnell will find himself in the room when Biden and McCarthy finally sit down together Tuesday after months of impasse.
Biden telephoned McConnell Monday to ask him join next week’s meeting with the Speaker and Democratic leaders.
“I’ll be there,” McConnell confirmed to reporters Tuesday but emphasized that he does not want to have much of a role in the talks.
“In this situation, and I’ve been a through a few of these debt-ceiling dramas, there is no solution in the Senate. We have divided government. The American people gave the Republicans the House, the Democrats have the presidency. The president and the Speaker need to reach an agreement to get us past this impasse,” he said.
“That’s my message going down to the White House meeting. It will be my message in the White House meeting and I think that’s clearly the way we get to a solution,” he added.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon and Senate class photo on Tuesday, May 2, 2023.
Republicans think Biden is trying to bring McConnell into the room to dilute McCarthy’s influence over the talks but predict the strategy won’t work.
“He’s hoping he can suck Mitch into the vortex but Mitch is too smart to take the bait,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate GOP leadership team.
“He knows he can do business with Mitch,” Cornyn said of Biden. “But the problem is that anything that comes from the Senate is going to be D.O.A. in the House so I think, wisely, [McConnell] has said our posture here is to support McCarthy.”
Cornyn said Democrats were surprised that McCarthy managed to pass his deficit reduction bill through that House, an outcome that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) previously predicted the Speaker would not have enough support to do.
“They’re kind of eating their words,” Cornyn said.
Democrats think Biden would have a better chance of getting McConnell to support a clean debt ceiling increase, or maybe a bill more palatable than the legislation the House narrowly passed last week to raise the debt limit in exchange for $4.8 trillion in spending cuts.
“The president and Sen. McConnell have a long working relationship,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said.
McConnell voted for the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package and the Chips and Science Act, a $280 investment in domestic semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research, two major Biden administration achievements.
McConnell also negotiated a deal with Biden when he was vice president to extend the expiring Bush tax cuts after the 2010 midterm election, a deal to raise the debt limit in August of 2011 and another deal to avoid the fiscal cliff at the end of 2012.
Democrats have much less confidence in McCarthy as a negotiator who can produce a result.
“McCarthy can barely negotiate his own election as Speaker,” Murphy said, referring to the 15 ballots it took to elect McCarthy as Speaker in January.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) is seen during a Senate Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs to discuss the President’s the FY 2024 budget for the Department of State on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.
“There’s not a lot a sign that he can pull off a complicated bipartisan negotiation while holding the entire economy hostage in 30 days,” Murphy added.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Monday said Congress has until around June 1 to raise the dead limit or risk a default.
Democratic senators are urging Biden not to negotiate with McCarthy on the debt limit and still hope they can round up enough Republican votes to pass a clean debt limit increase through the Senate.
Asked Tuesday if Democrats could accept any spending cuts as part of a deal to raise the debt limit, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said “there’s obviously a time to talk about that, it’s not this hostage taking with the debt ceiling.”
“It comes afterwards when we talk about the budget and appropriations process. That’s how it’s been done the last three times under President Trump, even when Republicans had complete control” of government, he said.
“The way to go is a clean debt-ceiling extension and that’s the direction we want to go in,” he added.
Schumer on Monday began the process for setting up a vote on a bill to suspend the debt limit until Dec. 31, 2024. He initiated the “Rule 14” process to put that bill on the Senate calendar, which will allow him to bring it directly to the floor at a later date.
He would need at least nine Republican votes to advance the measure if all 51 members of the Senate Democratic caucus are present in the Capitol.
The last time Schumer needed Republican votes to allow legislation to raise the debt ceiling to get around a filibuster — in the late fall of 2021 — he got McConnell and members of his leadership team to vote for it.
McConnell proposed a one-time exception to the Senate’s filibuster rule to let Democrats raise the debt ceiling ostensibly by themselves, an idea that wound up getting 14 Senate Republican votes.
But McConnell and his leadership team say they won’t support a clean debt limit increase this time.
“Sen. Schumer has said that … there’s votes for a clean debt limit. I don’t know where he’s getting his information because there aren’t the votes for a clean debt limit,” Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) arrives for a press conference after the weekly policy luncheon and Senate class photo on Tuesday, May 2, 2023.
He said that in seven out of the last 10 negotiations on the debt limit, “there have been budgetary reforms.”
“So 70 percent of the time the debt limit gets lifted there has been a discussion, a conversation around and a negotiation about budgetary and policy reforms,” he said
Thune argued that polls show a majority of Americans think fiscal reforms should accompany legislation to raise the debt ceiling.
“That’s where the American people are and clearly that’s where we are,” he said. “I just hope in the next few days, hopefully by the time when this [White House] meeting happens on May 9, we can see serious and real progress.”
Democrats, however, still think that McConnell will step in to the negotiations at some point to get a deal over the finish line.
“I understand the convenience of passing the buck in this building but in the end Sen. McConnell always has his own opinion,” Murphy said. “He doesn’t outsource his opinions and votes to Speaker McCarthy.”