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Biden, McCarthy launch high-stakes U.S. debt ceiling talks as clock ticks to default

2023-05-09T20:20:01Z

U.S. President Joe Biden will remain focused on avoiding a default on U.S. debt payments during his meeting on Tuesday with congressional leaders, White House spokesperson Karine Jean Pierre said.

U.S. President Joe Biden hosts debt limit talks with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, May 9, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Joe Biden and top lawmakers met face-to-face on Tuesday as a deadlock over raising the $31.4 trillion U.S. debt limit threatened to push the country into an unprecedented default in as soon as three weeks if Congress does not act.

Democrat Biden, House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, and three other congressional leaders gathered at the White House after neither side had suggested they would agree to concessions to head off a default as early as June 1.

Economists warn that a lengthy default could send the American economy into a deep recession with soaring unemployment while destabilizing a global financial system that’s built on U.S. bonds. Investors are bracing for impact.

Biden is calling on lawmakers to raise the federal government’s self-imposed borrowing limit without conditions. McCarthy has said his chamber will not approve any deal that doesn’t cut spending to address a growing budget deficit and signaled that he doesn’t see a short-term fix.

Past debt ceiling fights have typically ended with a hastily arranged agreement in the final hours of negotiations, thus avoiding a default. In 2011, the scramble prompted a historic downgrade of the country’s top-notch credit rating. Veterans of that battle warn the current situation is riskier because political divides have widened.

Tuesday’s meeting was likely to be closely watched ahead of what’s expected to be an increasingly fraught period in Washington, ahead of June 1, when the U.S. Treasury predicts the country could be forced to default on some debts.

McCarthy, whose party holds only a slim majority in the House, wants to tie a vote on the debt ceiling to broad spending cuts the White House considers draconian.

Biden’s meeting with the speaker was their first since Feb. 1. They were joined by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, as well as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and top House Democrat Hakeem Jeffries.

Earlier Tuesday, McCarthy and the White House separately closed the door to a short-term solution that’s been suggested by analysts: lifting the debt ceiling through September to allow more time for agreement.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business association, on Tuesday urged a “swift” bipartisan agreement on the debt limit that would also include energy project permitting reform and an agreement on discretionary spending caps.

Few countries in the world have debt ceiling laws, and Washington’s periodic lifting of the borrowing limit merely allows it to pay for spending Congress has already authorized.

Biden would agree to a separate discussion on the budget but not tied to the debt ceiling, the White House said.

The start of active talks could soothe the nerves of investors who last week forced the federal government to pay its highest interest ever for a one-month debt issue.

Prices for short-term Treasury bills fell on Tuesday as investors sold off debt that could come due around the time the U.S. debt limit could be hit.

Biden’s foreign travel plans and House and Senate recesses mean there are just seven days when all three parties are scheduled to be in town before June 1.

On Tuesday, Biden added a stop in Papua, New Guinea, on May 22 to his itinerary that includes Japan and Australia, but the addition was not expected to lengthen his trip to Asia.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Monday said a failure to raise the debt limit would cause a huge hit to the U.S. economy and weaken the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Treasury cash is dwindling as extraordinary measures are exhausted ahead of the June 1 date.

White House officials have discussed whether Biden has the authority to lift the debt limit on his own by invoking the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment, but Biden told MSNBC last week that “I’ve not gotten there yet” on this argument.

The 14th amendment says the validity of the public debt of the United States “shall not be questioned.” Invoking it would likely trigger a legal challenge.