Biden faces tough decisions in debt ceiling crisis

President Biden is seen holding a microphone and gesturing with his left hand as he speaks.
President Biden speaks on the debt limit during an event in Valhalla, N.Y., on Wednesday.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Biden has grounded his reelection hopes in large part on not being Donald Trump, and the former president’s resentment-filled performance at a CNN town hall Wednesday night illustrated why that argument might suffice.

During the broadcast, Trump defended taking children away from their families at the border, wouldn’t rule out a federal abortion ban, said he would pardon “a large portion” of the people convicted of attacking the Capitol in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot and advocated for the U.S. to default on its debt for the first time in history.

“It’s simple, folks. Do you want four more years of that?” Biden’s campaign account tweeted after the show.


But despite the vast unpopularity of those Trump positions with voters outside of his hardcore base, Biden is the incumbent this time. To win in 2024, he probably has to do more than simply be the anti-Trump.

At minimum, the president has to convince voters that he’s capable of effectively steering the U.S. economy — a subject on which a majority currently rates him poorly.

That means avoiding a default on federal obligations this summer, an event that economists warn could cause economic chaos and a topic on which Biden and congressional Republicans are currently stalemated.

Negotiate or go it alone

For months, as the federal government has crept ever closer to exhausting its credit limit, the White House position has been that Biden would not negotiate with Republicans over raising the amount Washington legally can borrow.

Congress has a nonnegotiable obligation to authorize enough borrowing to cover the spending it has already written into law, Biden and his aides have argued.

The government will hit its current $31-trillion limit soon, perhaps as early as June, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned. Without an increase, the Treasury would be unable to meet all federal obligations, jeopardizing social security checks, interest on government bonds and salaries for soldiers, among other things. Such a default would be unthinkable, Democrats have said.

Republicans, from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) on down, have made the opposite argument: Congress needs to keep raising the debt limit because the government spends too much, they say. So an increase in the limit should be tied to negotiations to reduce spending.


Biden’s refusal to negotiate made political sense so long as McCarthy was unable to get his fractious caucus to agree on a budget package. If the House couldn’t pass anything, the Speaker would have to give up or accept blame for a potentially catastrophic default, White House aides knew.

But in late April, McCarthy succeeded by the slimmest of margins. The bill that passed, 217-215, wasn’t legislation anyone liked much — even on his side — but it was the necessary ticket to the negotiating room.

“We’ve done our job,” McCarthy said after the vote.

“The White House made a big bet — not an unreasonable one — that Republicans would not be able to get their act together,” said Liam Donovan, a D.C. lobbyist with long experience in Republican politics.

Once McCarthy succeeded, however, “not negotiating wasn’t going to be tenable.”

So this week, without admitting he was doing so, Biden shifted course: He began talking.

Now, he’s got decisions to make.

How far to go in the talks is a delicate choice. Any deal with McCarthy will involve spending cuts that will anger Democratic constituencies. Even the idea of negotiations sits badly with many Democrats, who accepted the earlier White House argument that the debt ceiling shouldn’t be a negotiating topic.

In 2011, President Obama‘s talks with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) over the debt ceiling and spending generated a backlash among Democrats that for a time threatened Obama’s reelection. Biden’s role in negotiating a final deal that year with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has long been a reason for progressive activists to mistrust him.

Another downside of talks: If Biden were to cut a deal with McCarthy that the Speaker then couldn’t sell to House Republicans — the fate Boehner suffered — the White House would have angered Democrats and gained nothing.

Yet failure to reach a deal could trigger a default — a risk Biden doesn’t want to take. Economic chaos, whoever is to blame, would seriously damage the president’s chances for reelection.


In a brief news conference on Tuesday, after an initial meeting with congressional leaders, Biden said he would do “everything in my power” to avoid a default.

Trump, knowing a recession could be to his political advantage, made a deal harder to reach with his remarks during the CNN show.

“I say to the Republicans out there — congressmen, senators — if they don’t give you massive cuts, you’re going to have to do a default,” he declared.

A default might lead to “a bad week or a bad day,” he said, minimizing the consequences. But “you might as well do it now because you’ll do it later,” he added, falsely implying that the U.S. is on a path to inevitably being unable to meet its obligations because of the mounting debt.

Trump’s words won’t make reaching a deal any easier. But a possible outline of one has started to become clear.

An increase in the debt ceiling and limits on spending would be legislated separately. That way, Republicans could say the two were linked, while Democrats could deny that.


The spending cuts would include rescinding some unspent COVID-19 relief funds — something Biden said Wednesday he could accept.

Beyond that, the two sides likely would agree to cap the annual appropriations Congress makes for federal programs. Since appropriations have to pass both houses, Democrats know they would have to compromise with Republicans even if the debt ceiling weren’t an issue.

None of that would be easy. The two sides have big disagreements.

The path might be smoothed by agreement on something both sides want — albeit for different reasons.

One possibility would be a deal to change federal permitting rules to ease the building of new energy-related projects.

Meeting Biden’s goals for renewable energy will require a big expansion of electric transmission lines, White House officials say. Republicans want to speed approval of new pipelines and other projects.

It’s probably no coincidence that John Podesta, the veteran Democratic operative whom Biden chose last year to guide new clean-energy investments, unveiled the administration’s position on reforming the permit process the day after Biden and the congressional leadership met. Podesta’s plan got tentative approval from environmental groups that have opposed previous efforts to change the rules.


The alternative for Biden would be to forego negotiations and try to go it alone, perhaps by pursuing the legal argument that the debt ceiling violates the 14th Amendment’s command that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law ... shall not be questioned.”

But that doesn’t appear to be where he’s heading. Wednesday, Biden traveled to a swing district in New York to press his case that Republicans are “literally ... holding the economy hostage.”

But in remarks to reporters later that day, he appeared to be readying his argument for easing Democrats into accepting a difficult compromise.

“Look, the idea that we’re going to just not discuss anything consequential is just not real,” he said.

Enjoying this newsletter? Consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Become a subscriber.

Big change at the border

U.S.-Mexico border towns brace for Title 42 expiration as migrant arrivals push capacity limits

Across the southern border with Mexico on Wednesday, communities, migrants and border agents braced for the long-anticipated end of Title 42 orders. Most U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities were already overcapacity. Hundreds of other migrants lined up near ports of entry in Arizona and Texas to see whether they would finally be let in, Andrea Castillo, Hamed Aleaziz, Patrick McDonnell and Kate Morrissey reported.

New ICE program will put families under home curfew, deport those who fail asylum screenings

Asylum-seeking families that cross the U.S. border without authorization will be subject to GPS monitoring and a curfew and will be deported if they fail an initial screening under a new Immigration and Customs Enforcement program set to take effect soon, Aleaziz reported.

Biden administration will urge asylum seekers to voluntarily return to Mexico

Beginning Friday morning, the Biden administration plans to offer some migrants the chance to voluntarily return to Mexico. Homeland Security officials are planning to inform some asylum seekers from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Haiti who have been arrested by Border Patrol agents that they can choose a different pathway to the U.S., Aleaziz reported.


Biden cuts time for migrants to get lawyers, echoing Trump policy as Title 42 expires

The administration, desperate to limit border crossings after a key pandemic-era measure expired late Thursday, slashed the amount of time asylum seekers have to find lawyers before their crucial first interviews with immigration officials, Aleaziz reported. The Trump administration issued a similar policy in 2019, but that effort was later blocked by a federal court. Biden’s move is the latest example of adopting a Trump-style scheme in an attempt to manage high numbers of border crossings.

What is Title 42 and what happens at the border when the immigration policy goes away?

Title 42, a decades-old public health statute used during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep asylum seekers out of the U.S., lifted at 8:59 p.m. PST on Thursday, ushering in a new era for U.S. border control, Castillo reported.

The latest from the campaign trail

CNN’s Trump town hall nabs 3.3 million viewers amid brutal criticism

CNN’s town hall with Trump drew 3.3 million viewers on Wednesday, but network executives faced a tsunami of criticism for giving the Republican candidate a platform to spread lies. The audience counted by Nielsen was the largest for CNN since the network’s coverage of the July hearings over the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Stephen Battaglio reported.


The latest from court

Here are the highlights of the George Santos indictment

A 13-count criminal indictment against U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) was unsealed Wednesday, revealing a broad set of allegations against the freshman congressman. Noah Goldberg summarized the 22-page indictment, which outlined federal prosecutors’ accusations of violations of campaign finance laws as well as wire fraud, fraudulent application for unemployment benefits and other offenses.

The latest from Washington

Feinstein casts her first Senate vote in months, finally shedding light on health issues

Sen. Dianne Feinstein returned to the Capitol on Wednesday to cast her first vote in the Senate since taking an extended illness-related absence that threatened Democrats’ slim majority and led to mounting calls for her resignation, Alexandra Petri reported. Feinstein, who at 89 is the eldest sitting senator, was brought onto the Senate floor in a wheelchair that she may at times require to travel around the Capitol as she works “a lighter schedule,” her office said in a statement.

Feinstein is back at work but needs a lot of helping hands

An hour into a Senate Judiciary hearing on Thursday, Feinstein was wheeled into the chamber by a staff member. She grabbed his arm tightly to steady herself as she rose to her feet and received a standing ovation after she made the short walk to her seat. The San Francisco Democrat’s first day back at the Judiciary Committee after an extended absence recuperating from shingles was short. She said little beyond voting on three nominated district court judges who lacked Republican support and thus required backing from every Democrat to advance to the full Senate, Benjamin Oreskes and Noah Bierman reported.


Supreme Court upholds California animal-cruelty law that bans narrow cages for pigs

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld an animal-welfare law approved by California’s voters, ruling that the state’s restrictions on the sale of pork that is produced by the cruel confinement of breeding pigs does not violate the Constitution, David Savage reported. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, writing for the court, said the Constitution leaves it to states and their voters to decide on the products that will be sold there.

The latest from California

GOP voters in liberal bastions could have outsize role in California’s presidential primary

As a Republican in San Francisco, Jay Donde describes his experience in the liberal bastion as “frustrating.” But that may soon change due to a quirk in how the state Republican Party awards delegates in presidential primaries. Donde and other GOP voters in liberal swaths like the Bay Area and Los Angeles could have a greater voice in picking their party’s presidential nominee in 2024 than their counterparts in the most conservative corners of the state, such as the Central Valley, Seema Mehta reported.

Column: Trump and the Republican Party aren’t winning over young California voters, a bad sign for the GOP

Shunning Trump is arguably one of the most important things — maybe No. 1 — that the California GOP could do immediately to halt its downward slide and begin the climb back up to relevance and respectability, George Skelton writes in his column. A new study from the Public Policy Institute of California released Tuesday showed that among people under 25 who registered to vote from 2012 to 2020, only 14% signed up as Republicans, while 48% chose the Democratic Party. The other 38% registered mostly as independents, with a few affiliating with other parties.


Vice President Harris withdraws from MTV event near L.A. that would have forced her to cross writers’ picket line

Vice President Kamala Harris has pulled out of an MTV mental health awareness appearance in Carson next week, her first planned appearance in her home state since she and President Biden announced their reelection campaign, Courtney Subramanian, Erin Logan and Mehta reported.

Former top city attorney gets 9 months of home detention in DWP corruption case

A former high-level lawyer in the Los Angeles city attorney’s office was sentenced Tuesday to nine months of home detention for taking part in an extortion scheme tied to the Department of Water and Power’s 2013 billing debacle. Thomas Peters of Pacific Palisades also was ordered to pay a $50,000 fine for his role in the sprawling corruption case involving the DWP and the city attorney’s office, Dakota Smith reported.

Column: He was a California kingmaker and political genius. But Michael Berman preferred anonymity

A visit with Michael Berman, the political savant and California kingmaker who died last week, was a throwback to another time, Mark Barabak wrote in his column.


Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

Stay in touch

Keep up with breaking news on our Politics page. And are you following us on Twitter at @latimespolitics?

Did someone forward you this? Sign up here to get Essential Politics in your inbox.

Until next time, send your comments, suggestions and news tips to