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Sides still far apart on debt ceiling after Biden meets with McCarthy, Jeffries, Schumer and McConnell

Biden, McCarthy meet over debt limit
Biden meets with congressional leaders on debt limit 01:43

President Joe Biden met with the top four members of Congress Tuesday afternoon in an Oval Office gathering that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said revealed no new movement toward an agreement on the looming debt ceiling crisis

Mr. Biden, McCarthy, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell met for about an hour Tuesday afternoon. McCarthy said staff members representing them will continue to talk, and all five leaders will meet again on Friday. 

McCarthy told reporters that both sides in the meeting had just reiterated their positions. Democrats want to raise the debt ceiling without conditions attached, while Republicans want to trade action on the debt ceiling for significant cuts in spending. 

"I didn't see any new movement," McCarthy told reporters outside the West Wing after the meeting. "The president said staff should get back together. But I was very clear with the president, we have just two weeks to go." 

McCarthy said Mr. Biden didn't say where he might have wiggle room on cutting spending. 

For his part, Mr. Biden called the meeting "productive" but said he wouldn't approve "massive" spending cuts. In an evening press availability, the president didn't rule out the possibility of a short-term debt limit increase. Mr. Biden said he's certain the nation won't default. 

"Look over, these last few days and weeks, there's gonna be — there's a lot of politics, posturing, and gamesmanship, and it's gonna continue for a while," Mr. Biden told reporters. "But I am squarely focused on what matters, and we're getting to work."

Schumer said Democrats explicitly asked McCarthy if he would take default off the table, and "he refused." 

"The bottom line is very simple," Schumer, standing alongside Jeffries, told reporters. "There are large differences between the parties." 

McConnell told reporters the U.S. has never defaulted on the debt, and assured the public that America never will. 

"The United States of America is not gonna default," said McConnell, standing alongside McCarthy, noting the U.S. has been in similar situations before. 

U.S. Congressional leaders depart after debt limit talks with President Biden at the White House in Washington
U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), talks to reporters following debt limit talks with U.S. President Joe Biden and Congressional leaders at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 9, 2023. JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS

Hours before the meeting, McCarthy was asked by reporters at the Capitol whether he'd consider raising the debt ceiling for a few months, so that the negotiations could be paired with the budget talks that usually take place in the fall.

"No," he replied. We should "just get this done now," he added.

Republicans would raise the limit on the country's borrowing authority in exchange for spending cuts, while Democrats, including Mr. Biden, want to increase the debt limit without any conditions attached. Mr. Biden insists the debt ceiling is Congress' responsibility to handle, while Republicans say Mr. Biden and Democrats on Capitol Hill must compromise on spending. 

"The fact that there's a meeting in the Oval Office with the four leaders tomorrow I think is an important thing," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during Monday's press briefing. "I think that shows the American people how important it is, that shows that the president wants to bring them together to have this conversation. The president has been very clear — this is Congress' constitutional duty to take action, to not default. He's going to continue to reiterate that, as he should."

Jean-Pierre said the president is willing to have a "separate" conversation about the budget, but the debt limit needs to be addressed first. 

Mr. Biden and McCarthy met on Feb. 1 to discuss the debt limit and other topics, but little progress has been made. 

McCarthy has been counting the days since that last meeting, telling reporters, "You know, on February 1st, I went to see the president, sat down with him saying we should work on the debt ceiling, so we wouldn't get to this, and unfortunately it's taken 97 days to finally come back."  

"Hopefully, the attitude's changed and we can move forward," he said. 

On "Face the Nation" Sunday, House Financial Services Committee chair Rep. Patrick McHenry said  Republicans have no "red lines" in negotiations, "other than that we have to address our fiscal house at a time when federal spending is up more than 40% from pre-COVID levels."

The House has taken some action, although Schumer said Tuesday it has "no chance" in the Senate. Republicans passed a bill that would significantly reduce spending in exchange for increasing the debt limit. The bill would increase the debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion or until the end of March 2024, whichever arrives first, while cutting spending by $4.5 trillion. Mr. Biden has vowed to veto the bill, in the unlikely event that it would reach his desk. 

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen estimates the U.S. has until about June 1 until the nation could default if Congress does not raise or suspend the debt limit. 

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