House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., holds a news conference with House and Senate Republicans on the “debt crisis,” on the West Square of the U.S. Capitol, Wednesday, May 17, 2023.
Tom Williams | Cq-roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images
WASHINGTON – House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Thursday he is optimistic congressional negotiators can reach a deal to raise or delay the debt ceiling in time for a House vote on it next week.
“I see a way that we can come to an agreement,” McCarthy told reporters in the Capitol. “And I think we have a structure now and everybody works hard, and I mean, we work two or three times a day, then go back and get more numbers.”
Investors have been watching Washington closely this week for signs of progress on the months-long debt ceiling deal.
White House negotiators huddled with McCarthy’s team at the Capitol complex on Thursday, continuing their efforts to finalize a deal that must pass the Republican-majority House and Democratic-controlled Senate before a potential June 1 deadline, the earliest date that the Treasury Department can run without cash to pay debts already incurred.
McCarthy declined to give reporters any new details about exactly what was discussed behind closed doors. He said, “I don’t think it’s productive if you write something and then everybody who’s not in the room gets mad about things.”
“I just think that where we were a week ago and where we are today is a much better place, because we have the right people in the room discussing it in a very professional way, with all the knowledge, all the background from everyone. the different the leaders,” McCarthy added.
The comments amount to a notable shift in tone from the Republican House speaker, who has so far sounded more pessimistic than either the White House or congressional Democrats about the odds of a compromise that could win support from his fragile caucus.
McCarthy’s newfound optimism came after a key meeting at the White House on Tuesday, after which the president Joe Biden sent two of his most trusted negotiators to start a new round of talks: presidential adviser Steve Ricchetti and chief executive and budget director Shalanda Young.
Leading the talks on the Republican side is Louisiana Representative Garret Graves, who worked as a committee staffer in the House and Senate before being elected to his own office.
Like Graves, Young also worked as a domestic worker for many years. Together, they bring to the talks a first-hand knowledge of how to move complex legislation through the House of Commons.
Bias rhetoric aside, McCarthy took time to praise the White House team Thursday.
“I have the utmost respect for Shalanda and for Ricchetti. They are exceptional, smart, tough, they are strong in their beliefs on the Democratic side, just like the ones we have in the room,” he told reporters in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
“They’re working through it in a very professional way, looking at where we might be able to raise the debt ceiling, taking into account what the House has and others, and putting together a bill that will become law,” McCarthy said.
The House and Senate both kept their original plans to adjourn for the weekend on Thursday, a sign that steady progress in talks increased confidence among congressional leaders about a possible deal.
The Senate is not scheduled to be back in session until the last few days of May. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., advised members to be ready to return to the Capitol with 24 hours’ notice.
While McCarthy’s apparent turnaround was welcome news to jittery markets, it set off alarm bells for congressional Democrats.
Members of the president’s own party have grown increasingly concerned this week that Biden is giving House Republicans the upper hand, even though Democrats control both the White House and the Senate.
House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York warned that a key Republican demand that Biden has said he is open to — stricter work requirements for some federal aid programs — was a “non-starter, period, period” for House Democrats.
Meanwhile in the Senate, a group of 11 Democrats sent Biden a letter on Thursday urging the president to keep open the possibility of invoking the 14th Amendment.
The amendment states, in part, that “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.”
But the legal theory that the president can simply ignore the debt ceiling by citing the Constitution’s requirement that the country pay its bills has not been tested in court.
Earlier this month, Biden said he had considered the 14th Amendment, but concluded it would not prevent a default.
The growing frustration some Senate Democrats are feeling over the direction of the talks was on display at a news conference Thursday with some of the senators who signed the letter.
Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent from Vermont, from left, Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, Senator Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, and Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, during a news conference at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, on Thursday, May 18, 2023.
Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images
“If the bottom line is that the only deal out there that McCarthy will sign is one where ordinary families are screwed and the economy is flooded with fossil fuels, that’s unacceptable,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
Late. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who led the letter, complained that Senate Democrats were being kept in the dark about what was going on in the talks. He suggested that Biden was sticking to his longstanding demand that House Republicans pass a debt hike without strings attached.
“None of us is aware of exactly what’s going on” in the talks, Sanders said. “I think what the president has insisted from day one is that there should be a clean debt ceiling. And I think we all support that.”
Asked if he had communicated his concerns to the White House, Sanders said “Yes” and declined to say more.
“It was a private conversation,” he added.
Correction: McCarthy spoke about the debt ceiling on Thursday. An earlier version was wrong when he spoke. Garret Graves is a representative from Louisiana. An earlier version misspelled his name.