Biden and McCarthy are barely on speaking terms, clouding prospects for a debt ceiling deal

WASHINGTON — During the weekend after California’s stunning collapse Silicon Valley Bankno one in the White House or the Biden administration named Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy – the most influential politician from California as well as the most powerful Republican in Congress.

McCarthy met with Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, as well as his committee chairs and his Democratic counterpart, New York Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. And instead of waiting on the phone for a call, McCarthy said he called Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. They ended this Saturday in the first of “several” talks, a Treasury Department spokesman said.

But he did connect over the weekend as Silicon Valley Bank and then not with any senior White House officials signature bank failed, sparking fears that contagion could trigger a broader bank run and financial crash.

“I’ve never had anyone from the White House reach out to me. Not one person from the administration called me; I called her,” McCarthy told reporters last week at the annual House GOP retreat in Orlando, Fla.

The Biden administration scoffs at the notion that McCarthy is being neglected. Aside from recent bank failures, an internal White House memo shows that Biden kept reaching out to McCarthy, calling him on his birthday and on his appointment as speaker. If anything, the White House says, Biden could be the scorned suitor: McCarthy has not visited the building once in 14 months in 2021-22, despite having been invited repeatedly, a White House official said. Overall, the White House has invited McCarthy to visit more than 20 times; he walked eight.

Nobody expects major legislative breakthroughs in an era of divided governments and increased polarization. But when the President and Speaker of the House hardly speak to each other, the more relevant question is whether they can avert a financial catastrophe. In the coming months, Biden and McCarthy need to find a compromise to keep the country from defaulting on its debt, and in the fall they need another deal to keep the government from shutting down.

No meaningful negotiations are underway and no agreement is in sight. The deadline to avoid a catastrophic failure, according to the Treasury Department, is June 5th.

McCarthy and Republicans are demanding that deep spending cuts be tied to any increase the debt ceiling — a position McCarthy agreed to gain the support of the far-right Freedom Caucus to become spokesperson. Biden has insisted on a clean increase in the debt ceiling not associated with spending cuts. Her first and only meeting in the White House, on February 1, did not bring a breakthrough; The two have not met to discuss the issue since.

McCarthy said he pointedly asked Biden at a St. Patrick’s Day luncheon in the Capitol when the two could sit back down and begin negotiations. Biden, seated next to him, responded with a familiar refrain, McCarthy recalled: Where’s the Republican budget?

Last week at an Orlando resort, McCarthy’s growing frustration was evident. He complained to reporters that Biden was stubborn. And on Tuesday, he fired off a letter to Biden arguing that the president’s refusal to negotiate “runaway spending” was endangering the fragile economy.

McCarthy insisted that Biden’s team get in touch by the end of the week to set up a meeting.

“[Y]You and your team have completely failed in any meaningful follow-up to this rapidly approaching deadline,” McCarthy wrote, a message he repeated in interviews with reporters later in the day.

“Your position – if maintained – could prevent America from fulfilling its obligations and have dire repercussions for the entire nation.”

McCarthy’s letter contained a handful of general ideas for tackling the $31.5 trillion national debt, including: Recovery of unspent Covid funds, strengthening labor requirements for some government programs and cutting non-defense spending to pre-inflationary levels. However, his lack of detail also highlighted the fact that House Republicans have yet to release their own budget document for the next fiscal year weeks after Biden unveiled his spending plan.

In response to McCarthy’s letter, the White House intervened. Speaking to reporters Tuesday before leaving North Carolina, where he had delivered a speech, Biden was asked if he planned to meet with McCarthy if he didn’t come up with a budget proposal.

“Well, I don’t know what we’re going to meet,” Biden said.

Republicans said Biden’s focus on a GOP budget was political gameplay, since House Democrats didn’t create a traditional budget when they were in power.

“The Democrats haven’t produced one in the last four years. They never passed one from the budget committee. They would “consider” their budget every year. So do we need a Republican budget now?” asked Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., a senior appropriator and close associate of McCarthy. “That didn’t seem to stop President Biden as he worked with a Democratic Congress. He didn’t tell Nancy Pelosi, “I have to have your budget. You have the majority. We need to see your budget now.’

“So this is all politics and political posturing, and it’s dangerous.”

That Biden appears in no rush to meet with McCarthy — three months ahead of a potential debt default — suggests the White House thinks it’s playing a much stronger hand.

Top Democrats say Biden is drawing attention to McCarthy’s precarious hold on his leadership position by keeping McCarthy at arm’s length and repeatedly pinning him over the GOP’s failure to present a budget bill. With just a five-seat majority, McCarthy is trying to placate both conservative bombers who want drastic cuts and moderates in his conference who don’t want programs to be hollowed out.

Biden acknowledged McCarthy’s predicament during an appearance at a Senate Democrat meeting this month. McCarthy is in an interesting place, Biden said, to the laughter of lawmakers.

Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, said in an interview Tuesday, “We have the facts and the math on our side. But I’ve also always felt that given all the various promises Kevin McCarthy has made to be elected speaker, it’s going to be very difficult for him to come up with a budget that he could get for 218 of his own members voices. And the fact that we haven’t seen it reflects that reality, I think.”

A Republican on the Budget Committee, Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, the initially against McCarthy’s bid to speak, and then later endorsed him, predicted that the various factions of the GOP conference would be able to come together on a budget, although he conceded it would not be easy.

“We will present a budget. We present the case of the debt limit. If [Biden] If the government shuts down, it will be the Biden administration – it will not be ours,” Norman said in an interview. “There will be gnashing of teeth, but that’s a good thing.”

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