Everyone seems to want Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the debt ceiling negotiating table — except McConnell.
As the nation’s deadline to default rapidly closes in, President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have been eager to get the Republican Senate leader in the room.
Their hopes have been relatively quiet so far, driven by the sense that McConnell — a senator not long ago derided by Democrats as a singularly obstinate force — would help resolve an increasingly dire standoff.
But now that hope has burst into public view.
Next week’s meeting between Biden and the so-called Big Four congressional leaders marks a new stage in the standoff. And it is a conscious effort by the White House to get McConnell to have some skin in the game.
Biden and his team have consciously side-stepped the one-on-one negotiation Republicans want to have between the president and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. But they have calculated it is no longer politically tenable to have no talks at all. So they’re formally setting up a parallel track of conversations around raising the debt limit and addressing the budget, a coy way to talk about the GOP demands to reduce spending while keeping to the president’s pledge to not negotiate over default.
“The meeting is primarily about negotiating the normal budget progress, where all four leaders have a stake,” said a senior administration official who was granted anonymity to explain why the top leaders were invited. “And, of course, any bill to avoid Congress forcing a default on the American people has to pass both chambers of Congress.”
The possibility that McConnell will help Biden keep his pledge to not link the debt limit and budget seems unlikely at best. The senator said he would attend the meeting but moved to distance himself from the negotiation, insisting that any resulting deal has to come between the president and McCarthy.
“The speaker of the House has been sitting at the grown-ups table for months waiting for President Biden to act like a leader,” McConnell said Wednesday. “I accept his invitation to join the meeting myself but I’ll continue to lend my support to the speaker.”
Still, the effort by Biden’s team to work through him underscores the improved reputation McConnell has among Democrats in the post-Donald Trump era and the long-standing relationship he and the president enjoy.
McConnell has a long history of engagement in negotiations with Biden, including on the debt ceiling. After Biden’s election, they continued to talk periodically — even as McConnell sought to block the president’s top legislative priorities. Biden has gone to great lengths to praise McConnell and work they’ve done together over the past few decades. The president even visited the Bluegrass State earlier this year to fete McConnell as a friend and “a man of his word.”
By contrast, Biden has little significant history working with McCarthy — and his allies still eye the speaker warily given his lack of a track record leading the GOP conference, two Biden advisers said.
Even after passing a debt limit package, they said, some administration officials have complained privately that it’s still unclear what McCarthy wants in the debt ceiling negotiation — or could even accept — given his tight margin in the House and the last-minute arm-twisting it took to line up 218 votes, several of whom openly admitted they were only supporting it to jumpstart cross-aisle talks. That package included severe spending cuts, including to Biden agenda items, making it a non-starter for the president.
The White House sees other benefits in having McConnell — and, to some extent, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — at next week’s meeting. Aides hope to undermine House Republican messaging that Biden has an alternative to default: adopting the House bill. While that measure has the support of Senate Republicans — for now — it wouldn’t get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. Having the top senators at the White House meeting emphasizes that they, and not just Biden and McCarthy, have a role in the process.
“President Biden invited the four congressional leaders to the White House to discuss the urgency of preventing default,” said Michael Kikukawa, a White House assistant press secretary. “In that meeting, he will stress that Congress must take action to avoid default without conditions. And he will discuss how to initiate a separate process to address the budget and FY2024 appropriations.”
Then there are the more tactical matters. Having the four leaders join Biden ensures that a slew of “he said, he said” stories don’t emerge from a one-on-one meeting. A veteran of the Obama White House who now works in the Biden White House recounted the frustration felt after meetings between then-President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, when details were, in their view, often deceptively spun afterward to reporters.
For veterans of those 2011 discussions, there is a certain irony in Biden including McConnell in the talks once more. The deal struck by the pair in 2011 angered many Democrats who, at the time, felt McConnell got the upper hand. It even led to then-Majority Leader Harry Reid extracting pledges from Obama to keep Biden out of the 2013 debt ceiling fight.
But the prospect of averting fiscal calamity in 2023 has led to some amnesia among Senate Democrats, several of whom said Tuesday they are eager to see McConnell at the table. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), an alum of the 2011 debt limit debate as the then-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said it was important for all four leaders to be in the room.
“In the past, Sen. McConnell has played an important role in these debates and so that’s why I think it’s important to have them all together,” he said.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) stressed the role for Congress in a budget — not the executive branch.
“It’s really a House-Senate thing. The fact that he’s going to convene on [May] 9, I’m really happy about that,” he said. McConnell, Kaine added, has “played a constructive role in the past in making sure we didn’t default and he said, we’re not going to default.”
Next week’s meeting comes as lawmakers prepare off-ramps to the debt ceiling standoff. Senior White House officials had initially hoped that the business community would aid their efforts by pressuring Republicans to accept a clean debt limit hike, for fear of putting the economy at risk.
But despite direct outreach by Biden aides to business groups and Wall Street executives, few private sector leaders have publicly sided with the White House. Instead, the business lobby has largely encouraged Biden and McCarthy to begin negotiations in hopes of striking a compromise deal.
On Tuesday, Chamber of Commerce Chief Policy Officer Neil Bradley told reporters “there is no path to a solution raising the debt limit that involves simply passing a clean bill.”
“That means that there has to be bipartisan negotiations,” he said, adding that the stubborn rhetoric out of the White House and GOP leadership over the last 24 hours had made him more concerned that the U.S. would end up in default.
“We’re calling on lawmakers in both parties and calling on the administration to get to the table, to get around these solutions and don’t wait until the 11th hour.”
Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.