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Debt ceiling standoff gives Biden presidential playbook a stress test

On Sunday, Biden called on Republicans “to abandon their extreme positions because much of what they have offered is simply, quite frankly, unacceptable.”

“There is no bipartisan deal to be made solely, solely, on their partisan terms. They also have to move,” he said at a press conference closing his visit to Japan for the G-7 summit.

Biden’s reluctance to play hardball up to that point had been driven by two political bets: that he would present himself as a steady hand in stark contrast to the extremes of the Republican Party; and that voters will muffle the noise of Beltway, rewarding the president for the job he’s done if the crisis passes.

Biden and his team had been heartened by their belief that a consensus-seeking approach — albeit perpetually in doubt — had worked for them before, especially with the passing of a package of infrastructure and the far-reaching legislation that became the Inflation Reduction Act. But the standoff over the debt ceiling has so far proven stubbornly different, with Republicans showing a surprisingly united front and the president risking bearing the brunt of the blame if the nation defaults for the first time in its history. .

By Sunday, it was clear that Biden had been suspicious of the state of negotiations.

“I’m not going to accept a deal that protects wealthy tax cheats and crypto traders while jeopardizing food aid for nearly a million Americans,” he said at one point. “I think there are MAGA Republicans in the House who know the damage this would do to the economy, and because I’m president and a president is responsible for everything, Biden would take responsibility and that is the only way to ensure that Biden is not re-elected. »

For a few days last week, it appeared that Biden’s original playbook would work again. The Speaker has whittled down the negotiators’ room and enlisted a trio of trusted aides — all, including, other believers in the idea of ​​the public rewarding bipartisan deals — for interviews with the House Speaker’s staff. , Kevin McCarthy. The White House had privately hoped the president would be able to return to Washington on Sunday — after cutting short a trip to Asia (a decision he was loath to make) — to guide the final stage of negotiations.

But the weekend brought some real wrinkles. Republicans rejected the Democrats’ latest offer and said talks would cease until Biden returns. There were fights over how long caps on discretionary spending would last, potential military spending cuts, and how long the cap would last. The tenor of the White House began to change in subtle but obvious ways. Unwilling to comment on the negotiations for fear of being accused of poisoning the well, top West Wing communications officials began publicly criticizing Republicans for entertaining the default with a barrage of attacks on Saturday.

We still believe that it is still possible to reach an agreement. And, should that happen, the White House is confident that it can claim victory over its content. The West Wing aides have stressed that its top priorities – including key pillars of the Cut Inflation Act – are all protected. GOP talk about cutting Medicaid and Social Security has disappeared from the budget process. If there is no blemish, White House aides believe voters will once again ignore how the legislative sausage was made and give Biden credit for his leadership during the crisis.

But the process took the White House by surprise in several ways, admit people familiar with their thinking.

One of them was the speed with which the crisis approached.

The fight against the debt ceiling had been looming for a while; it was the focus of Biden’s first meeting after McCarthy in February, shortly after the Republican survived a torturous series of votes to become president. But as West Wing aides scoured the posh parties surrounding the White House Correspondents’ Dinner over the last weekend in April, it was still expected that they were likely to be several months before the deadline.

On the Monday following the end of the glitzy weekend festivities, the Treasury Department announced it would reach its “X date,” the date federal borrowing measures run out, as early as June 1 — much sooner. than most previous projections. Suddenly, the posture time became short. Aides looked nervously at the May calendar and saw that the House and Senate were only to overlap in session for a week while the president was to be abroad for more than a week to attend a series of high-stakes summits in the Pacific.

The other development that surprised the White House was McCarthy’s strength within his party. It took 15 votes for the California Republican to become president, and White House aides thought he wouldn’t be strong enough to hold his disparate conference together.

But McCarthy managed to narrowly pass his GOP spending bill in late April, allowing him to jump into debt negotiations from a place of renewed strength. So far he has kept his conference with him. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom bipartisan officials believed could step in to broker a deal, was sidelined for nearly six weeks after a fall and made it clear upon his return that he would defer to McCarthy.

McCarthy’s approach has at times frustrated the White House. He refused to separate the budget and debt ceiling negotiations and scoffed at simply proposing a net increase in the debt ceiling, despite this having been done many times before under presidents of both parties.

These positions were widely expected. More irritating to administration officials was McCarthy’s eagerness to appear in front of cameras to offer his perspective on the state of play. West Wing aides grumbled that McCarthy began using a talking point that accused the president of waiting months to schedule a follow-up meeting on the debt ceiling, saying it was in bad faith for, despite Biden’s urgings, McCarthy himself had taken months to produce a budget document.

When that highly anticipated second meeting approached last Tuesday with little chance of a breakthrough, White House aides made the difficult decision to cut the back half of Biden’s trip around the world. He would still go to the G-7 in Japan but return early, canceling visits to Australia and Papua New Guinea intended to show US commitment to the region and curb China’s growing influence. Although angry that he had to cancel, Biden told aides he had no choice.

Since then, Steve Ricchetti, senior adviser and arguably Biden’s closest aide, and fellow top negotiators Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Louisa Terrell, director of legislative affairs, had several daily meetings with the Republican. Staff. But after a few days of progress, the talks hit a snag early in the weekend. White House aides are still hoping for a deal, but believe voters will punish Republicans who have tried to cut popular programs and threatened tightrope politics with the prospect of default.

But there remains one hurdle to clear even if a deal is reached in the coming days — another test of Biden’s belief that he can’t just navigate Congress’s hyperpartisan legislative process, but be rewarded for it.

Top White House aides, led by Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, have been meeting several times a day, playing out how many votes McCarthy might lose to his right from lawmakers unhappy with the compromises. Among the questions considered: can we produce enough Democratic votes to compensate for these defections? Or is McCarthy, fearing that his presidency is doomed, blaming the nation so as not to alienate the conservatives who gave him power?

“Even a deal doesn’t end this thing,” a senior White House official said. “We are going to have very long days ahead of us.”

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