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Democrats, worried about a Biden-McCarthy deal, push a backup plan to avoid default

Democratic Sen. Peter Welch of Vermont, flanked by Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, addressed concerns about debt limit negotiations during a press conference on Thursday. A group of Senate Democrats sent a letter to President Biden urging him to invoke the 14th Amendment to avoid a debt default if he can't reach a deal with Republicans.
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Democratic Sen. Peter Welch of Vermont, flanked by Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, addressed concerns about debt limit negotiations during a press conference on Thursday. A group of Senate Democrats sent a letter to President Biden urging him to invoke the 14th Amendment to avoid a debt default if he can't reach a deal with Republicans.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill are growing increasingly worried that President Biden will give into too many demands from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in continuing talks over a deal to avoid a historic debt default.

After a second White House meeting earlier this week, and staff talks in the last couple of days, Biden and McCarthy both expressed optimism that a deal could get done.

"I see the path that we could come to an agreement. And I think we have a structure now and everybody's working hard," McCarthy told reporters Thursday morning.

But with two weeks before the country runs out of money to pay its bills and negotiations limited to a tight circle of the president's and the speaker's negotiators, many progressive lawmakers are nervous about the lack of details about what is or isn't on the table.

A key issue causing many on the left heartburn is Biden's recent signal that he's considering some changes to federal safety net programs, a central Republican demand.

The fear that Biden is entertaining going further in negotiations than some in his own party are comfortable with is driving a Democratic backup plan to get around having to strike any compromise with McCarthy.

Progressive Democrats are the most vocal about their trepidation—and are putting the president on notice that they are keeping a close eye on every morsel of information coming out of the negotiations.

"I'm watchful. I'm always watchful," Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told reporters Thursday.

Many in her caucus were alarmed by comments Biden made before departing for his trip to the G7 — where he suggested the possibility of toughening requirements for federal safety net programs like food stamps — a provision included in a bill House Republicans passed last month.

"I'm not going to accept any work requirements that go much beyond what is already — what I — I voted years ago for the work requirements that exist. But it's possible there could be a few others, but not anything of any consequence," he said when pressed what kind of proposal he was discussing with McCarthy.

Jayapal took note, calling his remarks "a little bit confusing."

"What I've said in the past is, you know, I understand he voted for work requirements in 1996 and some other things in '86 with the crime bill," she said. "But we didn't elect the Joe Biden of 1986 and 1996. We elected the Joe Biden of 2020."

President Biden delivered a brief update of the ongoing negotiations over the debt limit at the White House on Wednesday. Some of his comments about work requirements raised red flags to progressive Democrats.
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President Biden delivered a brief update of the ongoing negotiations over the debt limit at the White House on Wednesday. Some of his comments about work requirements raised red flags to progressive Democrats.

The White House has made it clear that any work requirements changes for Medicaid are not acceptable, but that leaves programs like food stamps or cash assistance programs for low-income individuals and families as possible areas negotiators may be reviewing.

Florida freshman Rep. Maxwell Frost says now that the talks have narrowed between the president's team and the speaker's, he wants Biden to hold the line.

"I have trust in the president on this," he told NPR. "But I do want to make sure that him and administration know that we don't want to see any cuts to these essential programs like SNAP," referring to the program that distributes food assistance.

McCarthy wouldn't say what kinds of additional rules to these programs were on the table but he argued there were statistics showing the benefits for putting restrictions on those getting federal benefits.

"Work requirements help people get jobs. It takes them out of poverty," he said.

But Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., told reporters he reached out to the Biden administration to say any deal that could impact anti-poverty programs needs to be rejected.

"The people that I've talked to in the White House have been reassuring from my point of view," he said. "I haven't talked directly to the president about this — you know, he's overseas right now. But make no mistake: what they are proposing would adversely impact the most vulnerable people in this country."

He added he'll break with the president if he has to, telling reporters, "I can't support a bill that screws poor people and this would screw poor people."

One senior Democratic aide acknowledged a significant number of House Democrats could oppose a final deal, and that the speaker runs a risk of not getting enough for a bipartisan majority to approve a deal if he pushes too many provisions from the House GOP plan.

Push for president to use 14th amendment

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., says the president has a record of hammering out bipartisan bills, but he suggested the other person at the negotiating table is the problem.

"We know that President Biden can cut deals. We know that he's a man of his word. And I have confidence and faith in the president in these negotiations. But I do not have faith in Speaker McCarthy and right wing Republican House members," Markey said.

The Massachusetts Democrat and 10 other Senate Democrats are pushing for the president to use the 14th amendment to the Constitution - which says the validity of the country's public debt cannot be questioned - and the president can pay its bills even if Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling.

"Republicans' unwillingness to consider one penny in new revenue from the wealthy and large corporations, along with their diminishment of the disastrous consequences of default, have made it seemingly impossible to enact a bipartisan budget deal at this time," the group wrote in a letter to Biden on Thursday.

Biden said last week he has been considering invoking the 14th Amendment to keep making payments on the nation's debt — but said he doesn't think there's enough time left before a looming deadline to use the untested strategy.

The idea has been raised repeatedly over the years. Recently, Harvard's Laurence Tribe — a former adviser to Biden — said he thinks it would be a legitimate way to solve the problem.

"The problem is, it would have to be litigated," Biden said May 9, noting a debt limit extension would likely to be needed to avoid economic calamity. "I'm thinking about taking a look at it months down the road," he said. "I don't think that solves our problem now."

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., acknowledged Democrats don't have a lot of detail about what the president and the speaker are discussing. But he says it's better to turn to the 14th amendment than agree to GOP demands.

"We're saying to the president, if the bottom line is that the only deal to be had that McCarthy will sign onto is one in which ordinary families are savaged and in which the economy is flooded with fossil fuels — that is unacceptable," Merkley said.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a former Constitutional law professor, has been pressing the case for the president to rely on the 14th amendment for months. He says "it seems perfectly obvious" that the Constitution is the guiding authority.

"It's not an option. It's a requirement," Raskin told reporters on Thursday. "And it hasn't been raised before because no Congress has ever tried to push the president to this point of essentially committing an act of legislative extortion, saying, if you don't accept our legislative agenda, then we're not going to allow you to pay the debts of the country."

While some Democratic lawmakers are publicly saying it's time for a break glass moment like using the 14th Amendment, others are willing to let the process play out a bit longer. They have effusive praise for the top White House negotiators — Steve Ricchetti, who has served in multiple Democratic administrations, and Shalanda Young, a veteran Capitol Hill aide with expertise in budget talks. The president and top Democratic leaders admit in divided government Democrats aren't going to like everything in any deal the president negotiates with House Republicans.

Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., says it's important to not jump to any conclusions about where a final debt ceiling bill will end up and whether new work requirements will make it in a deal.

"Negotiating can be conversational and hoping that you might draw a bite based upon something you've said, which means that conceivably is not in the final package," he said. "So who knows? But I do think that giving the president some latitude here is really important."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Barbara Sprunt
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.