Kevin McCarthy Brags Democrats ‘Backed Off’ On Their Debt Limit Stance

WASHINGTON ― House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) boasted that President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are negotiating with Republicans on a bill to raise the federal debt ceiling.

“The president and Leader Schumer have finally backed off their idea that they won’t negotiate,” McCarthy declared at a press conference on Wednesday. “They finally backed off the insane, un-rational, un-sensible idea that you just raise the debt ceiling.”

If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling sometime next month, the federal government will be unable to borrow money to cover its expenses, resulting in an unprecedented federal default that could hurt the economy.

Democrats have said Congress should just raise the debt ceiling to avoid hurting the economy, but Republicans have refused, arguing that Congress should not raise the ceiling without reducing the future growth of debt by cutting spending. Since Republicans control the House of Representatives and Democrats control the Senate, the two sides will need to cut a deal.

Biden and McCarthy met last week and again on Tuesday, and members of their staffs have been continuously talking. McCarthy’s triumphant tone on Wednesday marked a shift from Monday when he complained that “it just seems like they want to look like they are in a meeting, but they aren’t talking anything serious.”

But Biden insisted Wednesday that he’s not actually negotiating about the debt ceiling, just the federal budget, even though to Republicans, the two things are essentially the same.

“To be clear, this negotiation is about the outlines of what the budget will look like, not about whether or not we are going to, in fact, pay our debts,” Biden said.

A key Republican demand is to add stricter “work requirements” to federal programs that help low-income Americans afford food and health care. The president said Wednesday he would be open to stricter rules, just not “anything of any consequence.” It’s not clear what Biden meant by the statement; Republican proposals for stricter rules in three federal programs would affect millions of people.

When asked about Biden’s comments at his press conference, McCarthy and a group of House and Senate Republicans surrounding him broke into laughter, with one unidentified lawmaker saying, “Loser!”

“Anything that has consequence? This is a senator who voted for work requirements,” McCarthy said, referring to the president’s time as a senator. (Biden voted for work requirements as part of a welfare reform bill in 1996.)

McCarthy claimed boosting work requirements would help people escape poverty and ease pressure on the supply chain.

“I think when you’re sitting in the room and listening to the American public, why wouldn’t he want to help people get out of poverty?” he said. “What you’re going to have is a supply chain that doesn’t work as well, more dependent on China and making America in a weaker position. I think that’s wrong.”

The Congressional Budget Office has found that work requirements ― essentially limits on benefits to the unemployed ― may spur some people toward gainful employment, but not most. Overall, the increase in earnings doesn’t make up for the loss in benefits.

Jonathan Nicholson contributed reporting.