President Joe Biden (right) and Vice President Kamala Harris host congressional leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for a meeting about the debt limit Tuesday in Washington.
WASHINGTON — A White House effort to counter China’s increasing influence in the western Pacific on Tuesday became the first casualty of Republican attempts to make honoring the U.S. debt contingent on cutting medical and food benefits for welfare recipients.
President Joe Biden’s aides for weeks had been touting his planned visit to Papua New Guinea as part of the administration’s outreach to Southeast Asian and Pacific island nations that are also being wooed by China. Now the first-ever presidential visit there and a meeting with Prime Minister James Marape and other leaders of Pacific Islands Forum countries have been canceled to let Biden return to Washington immediately after the conclusion of the G-7 summit of the world’s largest democratic economies in Japan on Sunday.
“The president often has to make tough decisions about how and where he’s going to spend his time,” said John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, shortly before the decision to shorten the trip was announced.
He added that foreign leaders appreciate Biden’s dilemma and would not hold it against him.
“They understand and they want and they respect American leadership on the world stage. They know our ability to pay our debts is a key part of U.S. leadership,” he said.
The acknowledgement that Biden would return this weekend came as he sat down again in the Oval Office with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the three other top Democratic and Republican congressional leaders. McCarthy, a California Republican, has pushed the demand of many in his caucus to use the approaching debt limit deadline to extract broad spending cuts and more stringent work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid beneficiaries.
“We’re having a wonderful time,” Biden joked at the start of the meeting, the second such gathering in a week. “Everything is going well.”
After the hourlong meeting had ended, McCarthy again blamed Biden for stating for months that he would not “negotiate” over raising the debt limit to pay for spending that has already occurred.
“It’s unfortunate we are where we are,” McCarthy said, adding that he has been pushing for talks since his first visit to the White House on the matter in February. “For 97 days the president ignored us.”
A little later, McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol that he thinks he and Biden have finally set up a structure to reach a deal and that Tuesday’s meeting went better than last week’s.
“I did think this one was a little bit more productive. We’re a long way apart,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll get to an agreement. All it means is I think the process is a better process. ... The only thing that I think is better is now we have a formula, a structure. This is something that I requested back in February.”
The United States will run out of statutory borrowing authority to pay its obligations as early as June 1, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned early this month, meaning the nation could default on interest payments on outstanding bonds. Even the risk of this occurring is likely to result in the downgrade of U.S. creditworthiness, which would lead to higher borrowing costs in the future.
McCarthy’s position matches that of the de facto leader of his party, former President Donald Trump, who in a CNN town hall broadcast last week encouraged Republicans to let the country default if they don’t get the spending cuts they want.
“If they don’t give you massive cuts, you’re going to have to do a default,” said Trump, who attempted a coup to remain in power years ago but nevertheless leads polls for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
During Trump’s tenure, the debt limit was raised three times — twice in his first two years, when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress — without congressional leaders attempting to win spending cuts. In fact, the debt limit increase in 2018 was paired with a massive appropriations bill that eliminated Barack Obama-era spending caps — which, combined with the 2017 tax cuts, ushered in trillion-dollar annual deficits. The annual deficit skyrocketed in 2020, Trump’s final full year in office, with the massive new spending caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
HuffPost reporter Jonathan Nicholson contributed to this story.