Debt options abound but can Biden, McCarthy strike a deal?
President Joe Biden talks with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California, as they walk down the House steps to leave after attending an annual St Patrick's Day luncheon at the Capitol in Washington, March 17, 2023. The Tuesday, May 9, White House sit-down between the president and congressional leaders will be the first substantive talks between Biden and McCarthy in months, and comes weeks after House Republicans voted on a Bill that would raise the debt limit but impose significant federal spending cuts.

THE White House and Congress could strike a deal to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for budget cuts. Or they could agree to a stopgap measure to keep paying the nation's bills while negotiations continue. They also could let the negotiations unravel, sending the economy into a chaos.

As President Joe Biden prepares to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the congressional leaders this week for the first time over the debt ceiling crisis, the options for easing out of the stand-off are many.

But the political incentive for compromise is harder to come by, with no easy endgame ahead of a June 1 deadline to raise the debt ceiling or risk defaulting on the nation's US$31-trillion debt.

"We have to avoid default, period. Full stop," the House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries said over the weekend.

At Tuesday's first high-stakes meeting it's extremely unlikely there will be any quick resolution. Biden and the big four congressional leaders of the House and Senate will convene at the White House, with neither side yet signalling a willingness to budge off their opening positions.

Biden wants Congress to simply raise the debt limit without any strings attached, while Republicans led by McCarthy are insisting on budget cuts in exchange for any votes to allow more borrowing to pay the nation's bills.

Instead, the expectation is that the Democratic president Biden and Republican House Speaker McCarthy will at least be able to set aside their differences and agree to launch a process for negotiations that could begin to form the contours of a deal to avert a debt ceiling crisis.

But with tensions high and the outcome uncertain some lawmakers are considering unprecedented proposals, even including one that would allow Biden to bypass Congress, invoking his responsibilities under the 14th Amendment, and simply raise the nation's debt limit on his own.

The endgame is highly uncertain but the political terrain is familiar for the White House and Congress. The once-routine vote to raise the debt ceiling has increasingly been wielded as a powerful moment of political leverage to extract policy priorities that otherwise would not likely become law.

Republicans have put down their opening bid — a sweeping proposal that would slash US$4.8 trillion off the federal budget over a decade by rolling back spending to fiscal 2022 levels and capping future spending at 1 per cent a year, resulting in steep cuts to programmes and services.

The Republicans refuse to simply raise the debt limit on its own, and are demanding budget cuts and other party priorities. The House Republican-passed Bill would drop millions of Americans from health care, food stamps, and cash assistance programmes by imposing additional work requirements that many would be unable to meet. And it would undo much of Biden's climate change agenda.

Senate Republicans are backing up their House Republican colleagues, announcing they will not advance "any Bill that raises the debt ceiling without substantive spending and budget reforms".

In a letter from Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, and signed by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, the 43 GOP senators said they are "united behind the House Republican conference in support of spending cuts and structural budget reform as a starting point for negotiations on the debt ceiling".

Biden and Democrats have also dug in, refusing to debate over the debt ceiling — though they have opened the door to negotiations over spending levels as part of the regular budget process.

"We, of course, are open to having a discussion about what type of investments, what type of spending, what type of revenues are appropriate," Jeffries said. "That's a process that is available to us right now."

Time is short for any deal. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said that, come June 1 there would simply not be enough cash on hand to meet all of the nation's obligations. "Financial and economic chaos would ensue," she said over the weekend.

The House and Senate arrive back at work Tuesday but they are in session together just eight days before the Senate breaks for the Memorial Day recess the week of May 22, with the House set to recess the following week.

Both Biden and McCarthy have insisted they will not allow the country to default on its obligations. What's different about this round of talks is that it's being led by McCarthy, debuting after his tumultuous battle to become House Speaker.

To win the gavel McCarthy made steep concessions to the hard-right Freedom Caucus and other conservatives who make up his slim majority and who can threaten to oust the Speaker if he negotiates a deal they are unwilling to accept.

While Biden had a willing partner in past budget showdowns negotiating with McConnell, the Senate Republican leader is keeping a lower profile, enabling McCarthy to take the lead. But the threat hanging over McCarthy from his far-right flank could leave him unwilling or unable to strike a compromise with Biden.

House Democrats have pushed forward a process that would force a vote on a clean debt ceiling increase they prefer but it's a cumbersome procedure that would be a long shot in the Senate, where Democrats have only a slim majority and need Republican support to advance most bills.

Asked about the 14th Amendment proposal, Biden said in an interview Friday that he's not there yet.

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