7 min read

Biden meets the “Big Four”

How Biden and the top congressional leaders are approaching their big meeting today.
Biden meets the “Big Four”
Adam Schultz / White House

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How Biden and the “Big Four” are approaching their big meeting

The four top congressional leaders will meet with President Biden at the White House at 4 p.m. Eastern Time today, an opportunity to jumpstart bipartisan talks over the debt ceiling as the nation’s default deadline looms.

It is the first time the “Big Four” leaders — House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — have met with Biden as a group since the new Congress convened in January. Biden and McCarthy previously held a one-on-one meeting in February, but have not sat down together since then.

The two parties enter into this meeting diametrically opposed: Democrats say they will only accept a “clean” debt ceiling increase, with no strings attached; Republicans say they will only agree to raise the debt ceiling if government spending cuts are made at the same time.

In fact, the two sides have not even been able to agree on the nature of the meeting, much less the debt ceiling itself. Republicans have crowed that Biden agreeing to sit down with them at all is a victory, since the president has previously ruled out any negotiations over the debt ceiling.

But the White House has taken issue with that phrasing. “I wouldn’t call it ‘debt ceiling negotiations,’” Biden press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday, in response to a reporter who used the term. “I would call it a conversation.” According to the New York Times, she went on to describe today’s session as a “conversation” 14 more times during her press briefing.

Call the meeting whatever you want, but one thing is clear: Time is running out. As of this morning, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the Congressional Budget Office, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Moody’s Analytics all agree that the default deadline could arrive as early as next time — although the exact timing is tricky because it depends on how much taxes the Treasury takes in.

Here’s how all five participants in today’s meeting are approaching the sit-down...

Biden: At least on paper, Biden remains committed to a congressionally-approved clean debt ceiling increase; he has described today as nothing more than an opportunity to once again urge Republicans to get on board.

Behind the scenes, however, the White House has begun casting about for other options. According to Punchbowl News, advisers to Biden and the “Big Four” leaders quietly met on Friday to begin the debt ceiling talks; White House aides acknowledged at that session that a bipartisan deal will have to be struck eventually.

The White House has also reportedly renewed interest in raising the debt ceiling unilaterally, by declaring the entire enterprise unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. According to the Washington Post, though, Biden aides are hesitant to take that route due to fears that “investors would demand much higher interest rates to buy government debt that the courts could throw out, because prospects for repayment would be unclear.”

At the end of the day, Biden’s happy place is in a room like the one he’ll inhabit today: surrounded by congressional leaders of both parties, haggling for a deal. Will Biden, the veteran dealmaker, be able to resist a compromise for long?

McCarthy: The House speaker is still on a temporary high after his success in uniting his fractious Republican conference behind a debt ceiling package, something Democrats doubted he would be able to do. McCarthy’s bill would raise the debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion, while mandating $4.5 trillion in as-yet-unspecified spending cuts over the next 10 years — and also repealing Biden priorities like student loan debt cancellation and clean energy tax credits.

To be clear, nothing approaching that package will become law. McCarthy’s task now is to locate a suite of concessions that will be small enough for Democrats to swallow but big enough to appease his House Republicans.

Several conservative lawmakers have said they will accept nothing less than the package they passed last month — a major problem for McCarthy, who needs to prove to Democrats that he would be able to pass any deal they negotiate. In some ways, McCarthy’s fragile speakership is hanging in the balance: if he tries to pass a watered-down agreement, House conservatives could trigger the “motion to vacate” and attempt to take his gavel.

Schumer: Everyone after Biden and McCarthy are merely supporting characters in this drama. But Schumer has played his role from the sidelines, dutifully bashing the Republican package — which he has dubbed the “DOA Act,” meaning both “dead on arrival” and “default on America” — every chance he gets.

Schumer has initiated the procedural process to call up either the House debt ceiling package or a clean debt ceiling bill for a Senate vote if he desires. He has yet to hold a vote on either; Republicans have frequently pointed out that the House is the only chamber to approve a debt ceiling bill of any kind. It is unlikely either the GOP or clean bills would receive the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

McConnell: Of the four congressional leaders, it is McConnell who has the most experience with debt ceiling negotiations — including with Biden himself (they were the key players in the 2011 debt limit deal). Yet, the Senate minority leader has removed himself completely from the equation this time around.

“There is no solution in the Senate,” McConnell has said, insisting that Biden must deal with McCarthy and not him. Democrats are still nursing the idea that McConnell could serve as the debt ceiling “white knight,” which the Kentucky Republican has repeatedly ruled out.

Notably, McConnell signed onto a letter this weekend pledging to oppose a clean debt ceiling hike, joining 42 other Senate Republicans — enough to block any legislation. Months after surviving his first-ever leadership challenge, McConnell is less empowered than during past rounds of negotiations; he can ill-afford to be seen as striking a deal with Democrats that his conference opposes. As usual, McConnell travels where his members go; for now, that has meant hovering out of sight.

Jeffries: This is Jeffries’ first time at the big table, now that he has succeeded Nancy Pelosi as the House Democratic leader. (Notably, that also means the “Big Four” is only composed of men, for the first time since 2003.)

It is unlikely the Brooklynite will play much of a role in any final agreement, although he has tried to stay in the picture most recently by staging a push to force a clean debt ceiling bill onto the House floor through a discharge petition. The effort is not likely to succeed.

In other news

Chart by Axios

The Texas state House unexpectedly advanced a gun control bill on Monday, two days after a mass shooting in a mall near Dallas. The measure, which would raise the purchasing age for semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21, passed out of committee in an 8-5 vote. Two Republicans joined the panel’s Democrats in support. The bill is not likely to become law, since Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) has signaled opposition.

  • Related: “Texas mall shooter ranted against Jews, women and racial minorities on apparent social media page” (NBC)... “US on track to set record in 2023 for mass killings after series of shootings” (The Guardian)

Senate Democrats are stepping up their investigation of Clarence Thomas. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) sent a letter to billionaire Harlan Crow this morning, asking him for a full list of the gifts he has given Thomas and any other Supreme Court justices. ProPublica has reported that Crow has treated Thomas to luxury vacations, owns Thomas’ mother’s house, and paid for his adopted son’s private school tuition.

In the New York criminal case against Donald Trump, a judge issued a protective order on Monday preemptively blocking the former president from posting online any evidence shared with his lawyers by prosecutors. Meanwhile, Trump continues to dominate the Republican presidential primary: his GOP support reached 60%, a new high, in Morning Consult’s tracking poll this morning. (Ron DeSantis trails far behind at 19%.)

Could a basketball star save Democrats in Florida? Per NBC News, Florida Democratic operatives and donors are trying to recruit NBA legends Grant Hill or Dwyane Wade to challenge Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) next year.

Today in government

White House: President Biden will huddle with the “Big Four” at 4 p.m. ET today. VP Harris has nothing on her public schedule.

Senate: The upper chamber will hold a vote to advance L. Felice Gorordo’s nomination to be U.S. Alternate Executive Director of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

House: The lower chamber is set to vote on three pieces of legislation: the Coastal Communities Ocean Acidification Act, the Advanced Weather Model Computing Development Act, and the Testing, Rapid Analysis, and Narcotic Quality Research Act.

Supreme Court: The justices have nothing on their schedule.

Before I go...

The Pulitzer Prizes were awarded yesterday. In the journalism category, the usual suspects — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press — raked in awards.

But so did a much smaller newsroom: AL.com, the online home of three Alabama newspapers (The Birmingham News, Mobile’s Press-Register and The Huntsville Times).

AL.com employs only about 110 journalists (for context, the Times employs about 2,000), but received two of the 17 news Pulitzers awarded Monday: the Commentary prize for Kyle Whitmire’s columns on Alabama’s Confederate heritage and the Local Reporting prize for an investigation into a town police force.

The news organization has now won four Pulitzers in five years — an impressive record in a time of contraction for local news outlets.

To make it even better, AL.com’s Local Reporting prize was partially shared between a father-and-son team of journalists, John and Ramsey Archibald. “I feel stunned,” the elder Archibald told the New York Times yesterday. “It’s a great honor. And to do it with your kid — I’m telling you, that’s gold.”

Ashley Remkus and Challen Stephens also contributed to the prize-winning investigation.

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