House Progressives Vow ‘Huge Backlash ... in the Streets’ if Biden and GOP Reach Debt Ceiling Compromise
With less than a week to go until the June 1 deadline to raise the debt ceiling, negotiations between President Biden and House Republicans remain far from a resolution, and House progressives are shackling their party leader’s maneuverability with their own demands. When asked about the possible inclusion of spending cuts in the final deal, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the 101-member House Progressive Caucus, responded, “I think there would be a huge backlash from our entire House democratic caucus, certainly the progressives — but also in the streets.”
“Right now they’re pretty much at a standstill,” Epoch Times reporter Lawrence Wilson said Wednesday on “Washington Watch.” He pointed out that McCarthy, at a noon press conference, “expressed a lot of frustration that Biden and the Democratic negotiators were not willing to budge.”
“It’s kind of ‘she loves me. She loves me not.’ We have a deal. We don’t have a deal. It’s productive. It’s not productive,” remarked “Washington Watch” guest host Jody Hice, a former congressman and now Family Research Council’s senior advisor to the president. But he added, “McCarthy’s not trying to sugarcoat where we are with this. He’s remaining firm, and he’s letting the American people know that we’re far away on some key issues.”
One “real sticking point on both sides” is over the “reduction in federal discretionary spending in 2024,” Wilson explained. The White House’s current offer, backed by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), is to freeze discretionary spending at current levels — an offer Republicans have flatly rejected as “unserious.” “McCarthy is frustrated,” Wilson noted, “saying they won’t give even a dollar. They won’t even look to save $1 over 2023 spending in the 2024 fiscal year [FY 2024].”
Republicans’ opening bid, the House-passed Limit Save Grow Act, proposed returning FY 2024 spending to FY 2022 levels, capping spending growth to 1% annually, and expanding work requirements for welfare benefits. GOP negotiators have also articulated several redlines to shape an eventual agreement, according to the Hill: “[N]o tax increases, cut discretionary spending below current levels, and no clean debt ceiling increase.”
So far, Republican negotiators have remained disciplined about both their message and their policy objectives. “I’ve been very clear with the president from day one. We’re not going to raise taxes,” said McCarthy. “We’ve got more revenue coming into government in a 50-year average than any other time in the history [of the country]. Only two other times did we have this high a percentage. But the problem is, we’re spending more than almost any time in modern history. So, it’s a spending problem.”
“We should pull back money that’s been wasted,” McCarthy continued. “We should help people get jobs by having work requirements. We’ve seen that work time and again. We should find ways that we cap the amount of spending going out because the Democrats had spent so much. Even [Democratic Senator] Joe Manchin had thought of that idea, of a 1% cap going forward.”
Thus far, the House GOP Caucus is satisfied with how leadership is negotiating. “Republicans in Congress remain united behind Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the bill that the House passed, the Limit Save Grow Act,” noted Hice. On “Washington Watch,” Rep. Greg Murphy (R-N.C.) agreed: “We are holding the line. We are holding the line.”
“[McCarthy] knows that to get this passed out of the House, it’s going to require a conservative work product that fundamentally changes how we spend money in this country,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.). “I believe that he’ll deliver that. I believe we’ll have the overwhelming majority of the conference.”
By contrast, House progressives already believe Biden has ceded too much ground. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) denounced the White House offer to freeze spending levels, saying she could not in “good faith understand how that is a reasonable offer at the moment.” Omar said Democrats must “get serious about the extremists that they’re dealing with” or “risk allowing these people to destroy our economy.” Instead, she said, “I think the offer should raise the debt ceiling. We have conversations about the budget later.” President Biden still favored a clean debt ceiling increase as recently as May 8.
House progressives are now signaling they would oppose any debt ceiling compromise by President Biden that agreed to the Republican demand to reduce spending. Jayapal argued, “It’s important we don’t take steps back from the very strong agenda that [the] president himself shepherded and led over the past two years.” Wilson explained, “They really want to protect what they see as the president’s signature accomplishments through the Inflation Reduction Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Chips and Science Act.” Totaling more than $2 trillion, these bills were among the measures passed during 2021-2022, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House.
Wilson unfolded the basis for Democratic objections, “They’re afraid that by reducing spending from the [fiscal year] ‘23 level back to the [fiscal year] ‘22 level, that the defense [spending] is going to stay the same. … Then the social service programs … are where the cuts are going to have to come.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also said any spending cuts would “be a problem. We do not legislate through the debt ceiling for this very reason.” In response to that argument, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters in Kentucky, “The last 10 times we raised the debt ceiling, there were things attached to it. This is not that unusual. It is almost entirely required when you have divided government.”
This hostility to spending cuts is hardening into formal opposition on the Left. “What I’ve said to Leader Jeffries, and to the White House, is the president has to remember that whatever he negotiates has to go through both chambers,” said Jayapal. “At the end of the day, we will make our own decisions about what deal is presented, but there will be a huge backlash, even if it’s a bad deal that could pass.”
White House Motivations
Another factor affecting the White House’s willingness to negotiate is skepticism about whether Republicans will remain behind McCarthy on the final compromise bill. Politico quoted an unnamed White House advisor, who said, “The unanswered question is whether McCarthy can rally a majority for whatever deal he cuts when you know the big items are off the table.” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), former House Democratic Whip, was blunter, “They’re going to need our [Democrats’] votes.”
On some issues, garnering Democratic votes and Republican votes are mutually exclusive options. For instance, Wilson explained, “Republicans have proposed slightly increasing some of the work requirements for recipients of Medicaid and SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits,” expanding the age range for able-bodied non-parents by five years. But “Democrats don’t want to see any changes there at all,” and “many Democrats in the House are just not willing to budge.”
Whatever House Democrats decide to do, the White House position has already shifted dramatically since talks began. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on May 12, “[Biden] has been very clear. We are not going to negotiate over the debt limit.” On May 23, she said, “I’ve always said it is — we are negotiating on the budget. I’ve always been very clear about that. I said that ‘default is not negotiable.’”
Such a reversal has led Rep. Murphy to suspect that “this administration will buckle … because they are negotiating right now, despite Biden saying they would never negotiate.” But for now, he admitted, “we’re still very, very far apart.”
The Biden administration’s shifting position may be related to public opinion. A recent AP poll found that 63% of Americans want the negotiations to include terms to reduce the budget deficit. A CNN poll released Tuesday found that 60% of Americans said “Congress should only raise the debt ceiling if it cuts spending at the same time,” while only 24% said “Congress should raise the debt ceiling no matter what” (15% also said that “Congress should not raise the debt ceiling, and allow the U.S. to default on its debts). Similarly, a Wednesday Fox News poll found 57% of Americans want a debt ceiling increase only with spending cuts, while 27% want an increase no matter what, and 13% want the country to default.
National Review’s Noah Rothman noted that “these results depart from how the public has traditionally responded to spending fights in Washington” — blaming Republicans — and argued that has caught Democrats by surprise. “What changed?” he asked. “The answer is inflation.” Deficit spending is a “luxury” that “is now cost prohibitive,” he concluded.
Another possible explanation for the Biden administration’s reluctance to negotiate is the enticing possibility of invoking the 14th Amendment. Biden earlier said he was open to pursuing the novel legal theory, but added, “The problem is, it would have to be litigated. And in the meantime, without an extension, we still end up in the same place.” A public employees’ union sued to force the president to take this route, but the presiding judge has scheduled the hearing for May 31 and indicated he would not issue an opinion before the June 1 deadline.
As negotiators continue to haggle, members of Congress on both sides are trying to rhetorically prepare their constituents for the inevitable dissatisfaction of compromise. “Did you ever think at the end of the day that when you get into a negotiation with both sides that only one side is going to carry everything? No, no one thinks that,” said McCarthy. On “Washington Watch,” Murphy agreed. “It would be an illusion to think we’re going to get everything that we want. That’s just not going to happen. The Biden administration will never agree to that.”
On the other side of the aisle, some Democrats are making the same points. “We have a divided government. Nothing can get done around here without votes on both sides in the Senate and the House,” said Black Caucus Chair Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.). “That means neither side is getting 100% of what they want.” Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) noted, “The voters gave us a divided Congress, divided control. … Usually, when you have a bipartisan agreement, what that means is that the farthest elements of both caucuses don’t like it — and that’s just the nature of things.”
“Both sides are going to continue to play chicken until somebody breaks,” predicted Wilson. “We’re going to see more posturing and more posturing until somebody blinks, and then we’ll have some sort of deal. The question is, will it pass both the House and the Senate, whatever the two leaders come up with?”
According to an anonymous House Democrat, the answer is yes — so long as the president agrees to it. “If Joe Biden has his name on it, Democrats are going to vote for it,” Politico quoted the member as saying.
“I think everybody needs to relax,” said McConnell. “Regardless of what may be said about the talks on a day-to-day basis, the president and the Speaker will reach an agreement. It will ultimately pass on a bipartisan vote in both the House and the Senate.” He added, “the country will not default.”
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.