By David Lawder and Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON/WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) -President Joe Biden and House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy will meet at the White House on Wednesday for talks in the standoff over the federal debt ceiling and prospect for a U.S. default.
Hardline Republican lawmakers are withholding support for a measure that would let the country pay its debts until Democrats agree to spending cuts going forward.
The White House has said raising the debt limit is non-negotiable, citing the risk to the U.S. economy from a default.
Analysts are skeptical that the face-to-face talks between the Democratic president and Republican leader, confirmed by both sides on Sunday, will soon end a high-stakes crisis where members of both parties see opportunities to score political points before the U.S. Treasury runs out of money to pay its bills this summer.
“The President will ask Speaker McCarthy if he intends to meet his Constitutional obligation to prevent a national default, as every other House and Senate leader in U.S. history has done,” a White House spokesperson who declined to be named said on Sunday.
“He will underscore that the economic security of all Americans cannot be held hostage to force unpopular cuts on working families.”
On Sunday, McCarthy said that Republicans will not allow a U.S. default and that cuts to Social Security and Medicare would be “off the table” in any debt ceiling negotiations.
But he added that Republicans want to “strengthen” the costly retirement and health benefit programs for seniors – a statement that the White House called a euphemism for cuts.
“I know the president said he didn’t want to have any discussions” on cuts, McCarthy said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” program. “I want to find a reasonable and a responsible way that we can lift the debt ceiling (and) take control of this runaway spending.”
The U.S. Treasury this month activated extraordinary cash management measures to avoid breaching the $31.4 trillion limit on federal debt imposed by Congress. But without an increase by early June, the Treasury has said it may run short of cash to pay the government’s bills, risking the biggest threat of default since a 2011 standoff.
“There will not be a default,” McCarthy said without elaborating. “But what is really irresponsible is what the Democrats are doing right now, saying you should just raise the limit.”
Biden had previously pledged to hold the meeting with McCarthy as part of a series of engagements with the new Congress.
On Sunday, the president’s spokesperson said the talks would cover “a range of issues” and were aimed at “strengthening his working relationship” with McCarthy, whose party is ramping up investigations into Biden since they took control of the House from Democrats following November’s midterm elections.
Biden, who is contemplating seeking re-election in 2024, has been sharply critical of McCarthy’s Republican caucus. He characterized them as “fiscally demented” earlier this month, threatened to veto their legislation and accused them of trying to balloon the deficit, favoring billionaires, raising middle-class taxes and threatening popular benefit programs.
McCarthy and other Republicans both in the House and Senatehave said they will not support an increase in the debt ceiling without budget cuts or spending reforms.
The Republican threat to block efforts to raise the debt limit is unusual; such increases have been approved on a bipartisan basis in Congress for decades, with the exception of a 2011 vote that included spending cuts for several years ahead.
McCarthy did not provide details on specific demands and ruled out an increase in the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare benefits.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates said that McCarthy’s pledge to strengthen the programs would lead to cuts.
“For years, congressional Republicans have advocated for slashing earned benefits using Washington code words like ‘strengthen,’ when their policies would privatize Medicare and Social Security, raise the retirement age, or cut benefits,” Bates said in a statement.
The House speaker, who agreed to rules that make it easier for his party to oust him over policy disagreements, said he would focus on discretionary spending, which has increased dramatically in the past two years with infrastructure and semiconductor legislation passed with bipartisan support and a green-energy bill passed by Democrats.
“I think everything, when you look at discretionary, is sitting there,” McCarthy said. “We shouldn’t just print more money, we should balance our budget. So I want to look at every single department. Where can we become more efficient, more effective and more accountable?”
He said he also would look at defense spending to eliminate waste.
Asked if he would support a short-term extension of the debt limit until September as some lawmakers have suggested to buy time to pass spending bills, McCarthy said: “I don’t want to sit and negotiate here. I’d rather sit down with the president and let’s have those discussions.”
(Reporting by David Lawder in Washington and Trevor Hunnicutt in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Mary Milliken, Lisa Shumaker, Mark Porter and Deepa Babington and Aurora Ellis)