8 min read

Biden and McCarthy’s “first date”

The president and the House speaker have had a frosty relationship. Now it’s up to them to rescue the U.S. from default.
Biden and McCarthy’s “first date”
Speaker McCarthy (far left) and President Biden (third from right) in a larger group meeting in May 2021. Today, it will be just the two of them. (Adam Schultz / White House)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, February 1, 2023. The 2024 elections are 643 days away.

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Biden, McCarthy kick off Round 1 of debt ceiling talks

Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell go way back. Biden and Kevin McCarthy, not so much.

But with McConnell effectively removing himself from the debt ceiling talks, it is up to the president and the newly-minted House speaker to rescue the country from the economic catastrophe of a default.

The opening round of those negotiations will take place today, as Biden and McCarthy sit down together at the White House. It’s “like a first date,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich told reporters after visiting McCarthy at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Indeed, the debt ceiling fight is the first major test of the Biden-McCarthy relationship and of McCarthy’s governing style as speaker more broadly, excluding the four excruciating days of dealmaking he had to toil through before even being sworn in.

Although Biden and McConnell are closer, he and McCarthy are not starting from nowhere: as the Associated Press recounts, there was a time during the Obama era when the two men would meet for regular breakfasts at Biden’s vice presidential residence.

They also have a fair amount in common: both are political survivors, having ascended to the jobs they long aspired to after years of hard-fought attempts. And while McConnell is famously more taciturn, both Biden and McCarthy are back-slapping pols who feed off fostering relationships.

But in the years since those breakfasts, their relationship has broken down due to snubs both petty (Biden declining to name McCarthy in his inaugural address) and political (McCarthy declining to certify Biden’s election).

Kevin McCarthy’s new office. (Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

Consider their most recent communications leading up to today’s big sit-down:

  • Biden mocked McCarthy’s path to the speakership at a Democratic fundraiser in New York, referring to some of the concessions McCarthy made to conservatives as “just absolutely off the wall.” Donors laughed as he turned to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and added: “I can’t imagine, Chuck, you making one of those commitments.” (Biden also called McCarthy a “decent man, I think.”)
  • McCarthy told reporters that Biden was being “irresponsible” by saying he would not negotiate over the debt ceiling. Refusing to even entertain a compromise is “pretty childish,” the speaker said.

While Biden has said he will only accept a “clean” increase to the debt ceiling (with no strings attached), McCarthy has promised House conservatives that he will only hold a vote raising the debt ceiling if it is accompanied by comparable spending cuts.

McCarthy, however, has yet to outline the spending cuts he is proposing, a fact Democrats have been hammering him for in recent days. In a memo ahead of the meeting, a pair of White House aides laid out the two questions Biden plans to ask McCarthy today: will McCarthy pledge not to allow a default, and when will McCarthy release his proposed budget?  

McCarthy tweeted a response, but did not answer: “I received your staff’s memo,” he wrote. “I’m not interested in political games. I’m coming to negotiate for the American people.”

According to CNN, ideas being floated by Republicans behind the scenes include “capping domestic spending at fiscal 2019 levels and bringing defense programs down to 2023 spending levels,” which could save $1.7 trillion over the next decade.

Democrats are unlikely to support cuts that significantly impact domestic programs more than defense spending. Both parties are pledging not to touch Medicare or Social Security.

Mitch McConnell at his Tuesday press conference. (Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

At the heart of the debt ceiling fight is a dispute over the state of the economy. At their weekly press conference on Tuesday, which I attended, several Senate Republican leaders — although, notably, not McConnell — joined McCarthy’s call for spending cuts. “It’s the only way to get our failing economy back on track,” Senate Republican Conference chair John Barrasso argued.

Biden, meanwhile, has been barnstorming the country this week arguing the opposite, pointing to improving inflation numbers, high employment, and continued GDP growth as evidence that his economic program has been a success.

Republicans, however, note that inflation is still higher than it has been in decades, combining with raising interest rates to produce a slowdown in consumer spending that could spark a recession.

Something else that stuck out to me from the press conference: two separate Senate GOP leaders expressed confidence that the U.S. would not default. Neither time did the senators explain where their confidence derived from or outline how they believe the debt ceiling impasse will come to an end.

Bonus quote for the day.

While I was at the Capitol on Tuesday, I caught up with Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-FL), the first Gen Z member of Congress. Here’s what he told me when I asked him how the debt ceiling negotiations impacted not just older Americans, but members of our generation as well:

“A lot of times you only think about older folks with these [social] programs, but these are programs that we’re paying into right now and that we’re going to want to take advantage of.”
“The average American doesn't care about the debt ceiling, to be honest, and it’s kind of arbitrary. What we need to be talking about are these programs... Young Americans have a huge vested interest in these social programs and this country paying its bills, and it shouldn’t be used as a political toy.”

More news you should know.

Donald Trump and Nikki Haley, soon-to-be competitors. (Shealah Craighead / Trump White House)

Campaign 2024.

Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley is about to jump into the presidential race. According to the Washington Post, Haley plans to announce her campaign in a video as soon as this week and then hold a launch event on February 15 in South Carolina, where she served as governor before joining the Trump administration.

  • Analysis: At this point in the 2020 cycle, 10 Democrats had announced campaigns or exploratory committees to challenge the incumbent president. So far this year, exactly one Republican has done so. Haley’s plans show that Trump’s era of freezing the GOP field is coming to an end, and just might open the floodgates for other contenders to follow.
  • State of the polls: Whether Haley, who has both criticized Trump and praised him since leaving his employ, will pick up much traction is a different matter entirely. Per Morning Consult, she averages at 3% in 2024 primary polls, behind Trump at 48%, Ron DeSantis at 31%, and Mike Pence at 8%.


New York Rep. George Santos will “recuse” himself from his two committee assignments. Santos, who has been accused of fabricating nearly every element of his résumé, said he would step away from the Small Business and Science, Space & Technology Committees until he is able to clear his name.

  • Analysis: Santos’ recusal alleviates a major distraction for the GOP, especially as Speaker McCarthy prepares for a vote today on removing Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar from a key committee. Now that moderate Republicans won’t have to defend Santos being on committees, taking Omar off one becomes an easier vote.
  • Number to know: 78% of voters in Santos’ congressional district believe he should resign, according to a Newsday/Siena College poll. Even 71% of Republicans want him out of Congress.

Classified documents.

The FBI searched President Biden’s private office in mid-November, weeks after the first classified documents were found there. Per CBS News, which was the first to report on the development, the FBI search was conducted with the cooperation of Biden’s legal team and without a search warrant. It is unclear if more documents were uncovered in the search.

  • Analysis: This is yet another example of Americans learning about a major development in the Biden documents probe from the press, without the White House disclosing it. Last month, the Biden team announced a similar search of his Delaware home the day after it took place, raising questions about why this one wasn’t similarly publicized.  

Race for the Senate.

Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels announced he would not run for the Senate in 2024. “I conclude that it’s just not the job for me, not the town for me, and not the life I want to live at this point,” Daniels told Politico. Hours after Daniels’ announcement, the National Republican Senatorial Committee endorsed the more conservative Rep. Jim Banks for the seat. (The incumbent, Republican Sen. Mike Braun, is running for governor.)

  • Analysis: Daniels is the latest in a string of moderate Republican governors who have turned their noses at the Senate in recent years, citing the chamber’s dysfunction. The NRSC’s quick Banks endorsement is also revealing, as a sign that the GOP hopes to avoid its “candidate quality” problems of last cycle by taking a more active role in picking favorites during primaries in 2024.  

What to watch in Washington today.

President Biden will meet with Speaker McCarthy in the Oval Office. He’ll also receive his daily intelligence briefing, meet with the White House Competition Council, and host an event to thank Chief of Staff Ron Klain for his service and welcome his successor Jeff Zients to the role.

➞ Vice President Harris will attend the funeral of Tyre Nichols. According to TheGrio, Harris was invited to attend by Nichols’ mother and stepfather during a 30-minute condolence call on Tuesday. Nichols was beaten to death by five Memphis police officers.

Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell will announce another interest rate hike. The Fed is expected to raise interest rates by one-quarter of a percentage point, the smallest increase since it began upping the rates to fight inflation last March.

The House is expected to vote on a resolution ousting Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from the Foreign Affairs Committee. The chamber will also vote on the SHOW UP Act, which would require federal agencies to return to their pre-pandemic levels of teleworking, and a resolution ending the Covid-19 national emergency.

House Republicans will hold their first major hearings since assuming the majority. The Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, while the Oversight Committee will hold a hearing investigating “waste, fraud, and abuse” of pandemic aid.

The Senate has no votes scheduled yet again. The chamber has yet to organize itself for the new Congress, leaving committees in a state of limbo. At the Senate GOP presser on Tuesday, Mitch McConnell complained of the “mind-boggling pace,” which he said was slower than any he could remember. (Maybe Mitch Daniels has a point?)

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— Gabe