'Soft food' to 'good faith’: How Biden and McCarthy came together on debt deal
By The Citizen on May 31, 2023
In late March, the prospects of President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) coming together for a deal to raise the debt ceiling that both men found palatable looked dim.
Biden on March 28 flatly rejected a call from McCarthy for a meeting, instead urging the top House Republican to release a budget proposal before they could have a conversation in person.
Two days later, McCarthy quipped that he would bring a “soft food” lunch to the White House if that’s what it required for the two leaders to meet in person, an apparent swipe at Biden’s age.
By Memorial Day Weekend, both Biden and McCarthy were publicly complimenting each other and urging their respective parties to pass a deal they had finally signed off on.
“I think he negotiated with me in good faith. He kept his word. He said what he would do. He did what he said he’d do,” Biden said of McCarthy after delivering remarks Sunday at the White House.
“Very professional, very smart. Very tough at the same time,” McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol of his talks with Biden.
The budget deal and simultaneous agreement to lift the debt ceiling for two years marks a significant legislative achievement for two men who until recently had a very limited working relationship, with a big assist from top negotiators like Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) and Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young.
And while the sides traded barbs publicly to argue for their position, a mutual respect and sense of professionalism was persistent as a deal came together, according to officials close to the negotiations.
Biden and McCarthy have a shared Irish heritage, but otherwise little else to bond over. After November’s midterms, when it was apparent Republicans would retake the House majority, Biden said he hadn’t had much reason to talk to McCarthy previously.
They finally met on Feb. 1 to discuss the budget and other matters, which McCarthy called a “very good discussion.” But aside from interacting at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration on Capitol Hill in March, the two leaders went weeks without speaking, worrying some in Washington that the stalemate would send the country careening toward a default.
White House officials were adamant that there would be no negotiation on the debt ceiling, and Biden for weeks insisted that he would be willing to sit down with McCarthy again once he released a budget proposal.
One turning point in talks came when House Republicans in late April passed their own bill that would slash federal spending and extend the government’s borrowing authority into next year. It marked a major win for McCarthy, and it brought the president to the table for budget negotiations.
“Biden has been around a long time. When he wants to, he can be cooperative, and when he doesn’t want to he can be obnoxious,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said in an interview.
“I think the White House believed that yelling ‘default’ would work and that in the end Kevin McCarthy would have to cave,” Gingrich added. “And I think it gradually became clear that they can’t bluff him. This is a guy who survived 15 votes to become Speaker. He’s quite capable of being very patient.”
Biden finally reached out to McCarthy to invite him and other congressional leaders to meet on May 9, but it was not until after a second meeting the following week when there was a development viewed as a major sign of progress.
It was then that Biden and McCarthy appointed lead negotiators to work on hashing out a deal at the staff level. Biden tapped Young, a longtime Capitol Hill aide with strong relationships on both sides of the aisle, while McCarthy leaned on Graves, a top ally and, like Young, a Louisiana native.
As negotiators worked through their differences with a potential default deadline bearing down, Biden and McCarthy met again on May 22 for talks that McCarthy described as “productive.”
With talks slowly progressing, some Democrats were exasperated that it was McCarthy appearing on camera in front of the West Wing or inside the Capitol to offer regular assessments of how talks were going, while Biden largely remained in the background and avoided declarative public remarks about the state of talks.
But Biden’s relative public silence in the final days of negotiations allowed negotiators to get to a final agreement without applying added pressure or potentially souring the good faith built up with McCarthy over the past month.
“This has been something that both sides, again, came to the table in good faith, understanding how important this is to the American people,” Young said Tuesday. “And that’s what you saw. The American people should at least have some understanding or some comfort that, you know, government is working for them in the sense of coming forward with a bipartisan, reasonable agreement.”
McCarthy appears to have avoided a serious threat to his speakership for now, even as some conservatives complained about the deal he cut with Biden and suggested it should be grounds for his removal.
Biden is also dealing with animosity from his left flank, with progressives bothered by the inclusion of tougher work requirements for social safety net recipients.
“I made clear from the start of negotiations that the only path forward was a bipartisan budget agreement,” Biden tweeted Wednesday. “No one got everything they wanted. But that’s the responsibility of governing.”
So long as McCarthy retains the gavel, he and Biden will likely face additional future obstacles over the next 18 months. While those close to both men don’t see them as fast friends in the wake of the past month of negotiations, there are indications that they can work together and find common ground.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who was in the room for negotiations in recent weeks, was asked Wednesday if the Biden-McCarthy relationship is closer as the debt ceiling standoff reached its resolution.
“Better, right? But you’ve got two Irish guys that don’t drink,” McHenry quipped to reporters. “The bonding opportunities are not the same for an Irish guy like me. They both have a sweet tooth. Kevin for desserts, broadly. Biden obviously for ice cream.”
“It’s just a different construct for them sitting down and talking,” he added.