House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said this week he doesn’t think Republicans and Democrats are anywhere near an agreement on raising the debt ceiling. President Biden said little in public. As the risk of a default loomed ever closer, Republicans banded together and auctioned a tube of used cherry lip balm that sold for six figures.
Welcome to the final week of “productive” negotiations in Washington, a city that has a whole glossary – cliffs and ceilings and X-dates – full of shortcuts for its periodic dance with ticking financial time bombs.
“Nothing compels Washington to act like a deadline,” said Eric Schultz, former White House deputy press secretary under President Barack Obama.
Talks have been started, paused and resumed in recent days as Mr Biden, Mr McCarthy and their negotiating teams worked to discuss a plan. Details are few so far: “We both agree that we want to come to an agreement,” McCarthy told reporters Monday after leaving his meeting with the president at the White House.
Both men appear keen to prevent their relationship from descending into scorched earth territory, although they remain open on the details of a settlement by June 1, when the Treasury Department has indicated the government may have the money to pay their debts Bills could emanate far apart.
There’s still a week to go – practically an eternity by the standards of the Washington saga.
And lest anyone think that the lack of a breakthrough is a sign of intransigence or inertia or some typical government dysfunction, both sides insisted that all parties involved agreed that they wanted to agree. In a divided Washington, this counts as progress.
Mr McCarthy said the meeting with the President had been “productive”. In addition, it was “better than any other time we’ve had conversations.”
Mr. Biden also used the word “productive” in a brief statement after the meeting. By the next afternoon, nothing had changed when White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeated it: “The meeting the President had with the Speaker yesterday was actually productive,” she affirmed.
Speaking from his home state of Kentucky, Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader who has shown little willingness to participate in productivity, said, “Everyone needs to relax,” he told reporters.
“The last 10 times we’ve raised the debt ceiling, things have been tied to that,” he said, referring to concessions or compromises that are usually – but not always – agreed upon. “It’s not that unusual. This is almost exclusively required when government is divided.”
According to the White House, that wasn’t a very productive statement.
“What is unusual is that our economy and the American economy are being held hostage and thus involved in the budgetary process,” commented Ms. Jean-Pierre from the podium in the briefing room.
Perhaps these talks are actually productive compared to past presidential-speaker relationships. (President Donald J. Trump once referred to Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a “third-rate politician” during a 2019 White House meeting. The meeting ended shortly thereafter.)
But are they normal?
In a way, according to William Howell, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.
“It’s normal in the sense that it’s well known, but not normal in the sense that it’s particularly healthy or consistent with how other countries are meeting their debt obligations,” he said.
Outside of Washington, Americans have signaled that they want both Republicans and Democrats to make progress in other ways. On Tuesday, CNN released a poll that found that while a majority of Americans supported raising the debt limit, only 31 percent thought Mr. Biden had the right priorities and 29 percent thought Republicans had done so.
Forget that. Debt-ceiling productivity held up throughout the day Tuesday, even as members of the troubled Republican Party right flank, who need to reassure Mr. McCarthy to reach an agreement, said they were in no particular rush.
When a Semafor reporter questioned Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz about the talks, he responded that he and his Conservative colleagues “don’t feel we should be negotiating with our hostage.”
It was unclear whether Mr. Gaetz was speaking about the president or the federal government.
On Tuesday, Politico reported that Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene bid $100,000 in a Republican fundraising auction to buy a tube of Mr. McCarthy’s used lip balm.
The expensive purchase sparked public outrage from Democratic lawmakers, who accused them of frivolous behavior as the country teetered on bankruptcy.
“Spending $100,000 on lipsticks while working overtime to destroy the programs that working families depend on. GOP priorities in a nutshell,” New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez said on Twitter.
Biden’s allies believe real, tangible progress could be made if one of two things happens: financial markets start pressuring Republicans like they did in 2011, or the holiday weekend is upon us.
“Nothing motivates Congress more than the smell of airplane exhaust as we approach the weekends,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama who was in the White House during painful debt ceiling negotiations in 2011 and 2013.
“So we’ll see what happens in a few days.”
Aishwarya Kavi contributed to the coverage.