Biden, McCarthy and the fight over the debt ceiling

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy surrounded by reporters
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) is surrounded by reporters after leaving the House floor this week.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen warned Congress that the federal government was in danger of running out of money. The lack of cash would mean that the nation would not be able pay its bills and would default on its debt, potentially sending America’s economy into recession.

The scenario is one the nation has faced before; and one that Congress easily fixed. In years long past, lawmakers would seamlessly send the president a bill that would raise the debt limit and avoid economic catastrophe.

But in recent years, GOP lawmakers have repeatedly tried to use this scenario to force Democrats to accept spending cuts in areas liberals often deem a priority. This week, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made clear he would keep with this trend. Leveraging the House Republican majority, the Californian is pushing President Biden to accept spending cuts. The White House said Democrats would not barter over the debt ceiling.


But does McCarthy have enough Republicans on board to force the issue? Can Republicans and Democrats put their partisan squabbling on hold to stave off an economic disaster? Will the United States default on its debts?

Hello, friends. I’m Erin B. Logan, a reporter covering national politics for the L.A. Times. This week, we are going to talk about Congress, Biden and the nation’s debts.

McCarthy’s pitch

McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said this week that he would raise America’s debt ceiling for one year, with a catch — Biden must agree to cap most spending increases at 1% over the next decade, the Associated Press reported. This and other stipulations would mean many of the president’s policy priorities, including responding to climate change, would not be funded.

Biden has made clear the trade was a no-go. Still, McCarthy is pressing ahead to rally his party behind the bill. But not every GOP lawmaker is on board. Moderate South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace told a reporter she is “leaning no” on the legislation. while New York Rep. George Santos said he is a “hard no,” though, he said he could “come around if they give me the opportunity to have a conversation and share my thoughts.”

While McCarthy is still trying to rally his party, he is laying the groundwork to blame Biden if the nation defaults this summer.

“Without exaggeration, America’s debt is a ticking time bomb that will detonate unless we take serious, responsible action,” McCarthy said at the New York Stock Exchange on Monday, urging Americans to press the White House in negotiating an agreement “that brings spending under control.”

The Californian added: “And if President Biden decides to stop the partisan games and stand with us, then our majority will join with him in common cause to address this urgent challenge.”

Democratic refusal

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York made clear that McCarthy’s bill would be dead on arrival in the upper chamber.

Speaking from the floor of the Senate, Schumer said the cuts Republicans proposed would gut funding for food assistance, mental health and opioid addiction programs, and should not be tied to the debt limit.

“If Republicans truly wish to sell their extreme agenda to the American people, they should not do so in the middle of discussions to avoid default,” Schumer said. “There is a time and place to debate that, not during this debate because what they’re doing is dangerous to the country.”

The White House has expressed a similar position, insisting that the debt limit should remain untied from the nation’s larger budget since raising the ceiling would address already approved funding.

Democrats are not the only group saying the two are unrelated.

Far-right Georgia GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said the debt ceiling is “like the shiny object.”


“It’s not connected with the budget,” she said. “The budget appropriations is the real fight.” She added: “I’m willing to negotiate and get something and get it over with, so that we can do the real work and cut spending.”

Still, Greene told former President Trump‘s strategist Stephen K. Bannon on his podcast, “War Room,” that she would not back a “clean debt ceiling bill.”

“There’s no way in hell I’ll vote for that,” Greene said.

The latest from the campaign trail

—Former Vice President Mike Pence, weighing a White House run next year, delivered a powerful call for America’s continued aid to Ukraine on Wednesday, saying the intervention is critical for national and global security, Times writer Seema Mehta reported.

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The view from Washington

—The Republican-led House passed a bill Thursday that would bar federally supported schools and colleges from allowing transgender athletes whose biological sex assigned at birth was male to compete on girls’ or women’s sports teams, the Associated Press reported. The legislation is unlikely to advance further because the Democratic-led Senate will not support it and the White House said Biden would veto it. Supporters said the legislation, which would put violators at risk of losing taxpayer dollars, is necessary to ensure competitive fairness.

—The Supreme Court heard a free-speech case on Wednesday and sounded ready to make it much harder to prosecute alleged online stalkers who repeatedly send unwanted and harassing messages that leave the recipient upset and frightened, Times writer David G. Savage reported. At issue is whether prosecutors must prove the sender intended to make true threats.

—California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s health issues are threatening to imperil Biden’s quest to remake the federal judiciary — but so far the White House is willing to be patient, Times writer Courtney Subramanian reported. Republicans blocked a Democratic effort on Tuesday to temporarily replace Feinstein on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the absence of the Democrat’s tiebreaking vote has left some of Biden’s judicial nominees languishing.


The view from California

—Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass released the first budget proposal of her administration on Tuesday, calling for more police and greater spending on homelessness, anti-gang programs and the city’s struggling animal shelters, Times writers David Zahniser, Julia Wick and Dakota Smith reported.

—Los Angeles County officials revealed their $43-billion recommended budget for the upcoming fiscal year this week — a spending blueprint they promised would keep the region’s social safety net intact even as the county prepares to pay a steep price for how poorly officials have historically handled the jails and juvenile halls, Times writer Rebecca Ellis reported.

—State regulators have proposed a record $21.7-million penalty for breakdowns and failures at L.A.’s largest wastewater treatment facility that triggered a massive sewage spill in Santa Monica Bay and led to noxious fumes and water quality problems that persist almost two years later, Times writer Robert J. Lopez reported. In a civil liability complaint, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board accused officials at the Hyperion plant in Playa del Rey of “gross negligence” in connection with multiple breakdowns.

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