It’s debt ceiling negotiating day again, even as the White House insists President Joe Biden is only negotiating the budget, with the debt ceiling as a parallel track. Congressional leadership is heading back Tuesday afternoon to continue the talks, which are definitely about the debt limit and are making plenty of Democrats nervous.
For example, Biden recently suggested he would be open to some of the work requirements Republicans want, such as raising the age limit already in place for food assistance from age 50 to 55. (He did rule out work requirements for people on Medicaid.)
The White House and Biden both walked that back a little, with a statement from a spokesperson saying he “will not accept policies that push Americans into poverty.” On Monday, Biden criticized the Republican proposal in a tweet.
The damage was already done, however, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy jumped on it in the Tuesday morning Republican conference meeting, telling members that work requirements were going to be his red line in negotiations.
Work requirements don’t work. They don’t increase employment among low-income people. They simply create more barriers for the working poor to get assistance. Not including them should be a red line for Biden and every other Democrat.
At the same time, progressive Democrats don’t appreciate Biden’s movement not just on work requirements, but setting budget caps. Republicans want to cap appropriations for the next 10 years, with a 8% cut in spending for the 2024 fiscal year, and then then just 1% in growth for the next nine years. The White House has countered with a two-year cap, a concession that Sen. Elizabeth Warren considers a bad deal because of what happened last time Biden agreed to that.
When he negotiated those caps as vice president in the Obama administration in 2011, it “extended high unemployment for five years,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “Those budget caps are not cost free. They keep the economy hobbled and that means fewer people with jobs, fewer mamas with access to child care, fewer sick people who can get well and get back to work.”
Meanwhile, a handful of House Democrats—those pesky “Problem Solvers”—are trying to work with Republicans to save McCarthy’s butt if things don’t work out the way the Freedom Caucus, and McCarthy himself, demand. If he concedes on the debt limit and the Freedom Caucus maniacs try to force him out, this group of Democrats tell their Republican friends they’ll help save him. “We’ll protect him if he does the right thing,” one of them told Politico anonymously.
It’s dumb, but it might create a problem for McCarthy with the hardliners he clearly is lining up with, hence his staff’s reaction. “The Speaker has never heard of this garbage, has zero interest in it, and thinks Democrats would be better off focusing on doing the jobs they were elected to do,” McCarthy spokesperson Mark Bednar said in a statement.
On the Republican side of the Senate aisle, a handful of Republicans are getting nervous about House Republicans’ refusal to budge. Their leader, Mitch McConnell, is still refusing to engage, saying it’s up to McCarthy and Biden to figure out. But some of the rank-and-file fear the Freedom Caucus and how much control they have over McCarthy. “We don’t want to default. At some point, we’re going to have to find a way through this,” West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told Politico. “And it really hinges on the Republicans on the House side pulling together as much as they can.”
They’re pulled together right now and their objective remains holding onto this debt ceiling hostage to the bitter end, even if it means default and economic catastrophe. McCarthy reiterated that Tuesday. “[Biden’s] not gonna get a clean debt ceiling. [...] We are stronger together. Stick together stay strong.”
In sum, it remains a dangerous mess. Here’s a suggestion for Democrats: Next time they have control over the Congress and the White House, listen to the people who told you to keep this hostage away from Republicans. We really did tell you so.
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