But the GOP is also entertaining hope that the president shows a shred of openness to taking its demands seriously, even as very few of its members specify what they want Biden to negotiate on. A rare Republican with a concrete proposal was Texas Rep. Chip Roy, who on Tuesday called directly for federal spending caps.
“It’s a lot of work. We got to do it. We’re in a big hole because of irresponsibility on both sides of the aisle,” said Roy, who has also specified that the cuts shouldn’t touch the Pentagon’s budget or programs like Medicare or Social Security. “But there is a path, and we ought to sit down and figure it out.”
That growing fiscal slash-and-burn pressure from the GOP’s right flank leaves both parties in a state of high-stakes uncertainty as Congress veers towards a summertime cliff that draws parallels to the Obama administration’s flirtation with debt calamity more than a decade ago. And this time around, Biden’s lead negotiating partner won’t be his generational counterpart Mitch McConnell but the younger speaker from California, who brings a more Trump-friendly conservatism and less predictable style to the table.
McCarthy will also be speaking for a conference where fiscal hawks hold significant sway and spending caps are gaining momentum as a proposed solution. That outcome would be similar to the 2011 debt limit standoff, which ended with Congress enacting strict spending limits that technically lasted a decade, but were waived more times than not.
“I think the first thing [Biden] should do, especially as president of the United States, is say he’s willing to sit down and find a common ground and negotiate together,” McCarthy told reporters Tuesday morning when asked what he would need to see from Biden to consider the meeting a success.
House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) put it more simply: “It would be awesome if the president would admit he is going to negotiate. That would be awesome.”
But GOP members are still fiercely split over major issues like whether to slash the Pentagon’s budget or touch entitlement programs, and broad domestic spending cuts could prove problematic for more moderate, electorally vulnerable members.
Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), another conservative who supports limits on domestic spending, said of Biden: “He wants to do a free debt ceiling. And I don’t think that’s what the American people want.”
The first step this time, as House Republicans see it, is for Biden to acknowledge to their leader that the U.S. needs to start chipping away at the nation’s rising borrowing bills. While GOP leaders have agreed to look at capping spending at fiscal 2022 levels in future spending bills, there’s been little open discussion about whether those demands would carry into the debt conversations.
“We can’t even talk about it without the president and Democrats coming to the table,” said House Budget Committee Chair Jodey Arrington (R-Texas).
Democrats, meanwhile, are looking for their own concessions. Biden plans to seek a commitment from McCarthy that the U.S. will never default on its financial obligations, according to a White House memo released earlier Tuesday. Administration officials also said they plan to unveil their proposed budget for the coming fiscal year on March 9, demanding that House GOP leaders reveal their own blueprint detailing their vision for spending cuts.
Some Senate Democrats have said they’re willing to discuss government funding as part of the annual appropriations process, but not while using the nation’s borrowing limit as a bargaining chip.
“There shouldn’t be a negotiation about whether or not we pay our bills,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a member of the chamber’s Democratic leadership. “If they want to talk about next year’s budget, certainly that’s a legitimate thing. But we don’t negotiate to pay our bills.”
Centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), however, has said it would be a mistake for the White House not to negotiate with Republicans over the debt ceiling. Manchin met with McCarthy last week, after which he said the GOP leader agreed not to cut Medicare and Social Security.
“I think those two can get something done,” Manchin said Monday night of the president and House GOP leader. “I really feel confident about that.”
Unlike some House Republicans, though, Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said he hopes Biden will entertain changes to ensure the long-term solvency of programs like Social Security and Medicare, which “are both headed for bankruptcy.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to cut programs, but it does mean that you’ve got to make reforms … that will translate into making those programs more sustainable for the long term,” Thune said Tuesday. “If you take that off the table in these negotiations, it does obviously limit the amount of the budget that you can address.”
More than a decade ago, then-Vice President Biden and Senate GOP leader McConnell successfully hashed out a spending caps deal to stave off a market-rattling default. But this time, McConnell has said McCarthy should take the lead, arguing that nothing would get through the Democratic-led Senate if it can’t pass the Republican-led House.
McConnell said Tuesday that the 2011 deal was successful when it came to restricting spending in the short-term, but it squeezed defense funding too much.
“We’re all behind Kevin and wishing him well in negotiations,” McConnell said.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), a senior party appropriator, said Biden will ultimately have to negotiate with the GOP to stave off a debt default that — in Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s recent words — could result in a “global financial crisis.”
“No one holds all the cards,” Fleischmann said.
Jennifer Scholtes and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.