Debt ceiling talks suspended as US lurches towards default deadline

<span>Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP</span>

Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

Negotiations for a deal to raise the US debt ceiling and thereby avoid a default with potentially catastrophic consequences for the world economy reached a worrying impasse on Friday.

“We’re not there,” Garret Graves of Louisiana, the lead negotiator for House Republicans in talks with the Biden White House, told reporters at the Capitol.

“We’ve decided to press pause, because it’s just not productive.”

The treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, has said that without action the US government will cease to be able to pay its debts on or around 1 June.

Joe Biden is away at the G7 summit in Japan. White House officials were leading talks for Democrats.

One told the Guardian: “There are real differences between the parties on budget issues and talks will be difficult. The president’s team is working hard towards a reasonable bipartisan solution that can pass the House and the Senate.”

For decades after 1917, when the federal debt was capped, raising that limit, or ceiling, was usually a routine procedure, if subject to political grandstanding.

In 2006, the Illinois Democratic senator Barack Obama voted against a raise under a Republican president, George W Bush.

But Republicans have increasingly and effectively employed threats to refuse to raise the ceiling as a bargaining tool and in 2011, as president, Obama was forced to say he regretted his vote of five years before.

In the 2011 standoff, the House GOP extracted trillions of dollars in spending cuts which Obama was forced to sell to his party. Now, under Biden, the same dynamic is in play.

With the Republican House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, beholden to far-right members who made him endure 15 votes before gaining the position, the GOP is demanding hefty cuts to spending, on Democratic priorities including healthcare and climate, in return for a debt ceiling raise.

Democrats say Republicans should agree a clean raise – meaning without preconditions – as they did repeatedly under Donald Trump. Democrats also demand that Biden does not blink.

At the Capitol on Friday, Graves said: “Until people are willing to have reasonable conversations about how you can actually move forward and do the right thing, then we’re not going to sit here and talk to ourselves.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, flanked by Senators Jeff Merkley, left, and Ed Markey, urges Joe Biden to invoke the 14th amendment.

Senator Bernie Sanders, flanked by Senators Jeff Merkley, left, and Ed Markey, urges Joe Biden to invoke the 14th amendment. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

Republican leaders outside the talks sought to apply pressure. Not long before Graves spoke to reporters, Trump said his party should not give ground.

Republicans, the presidential frontrunner wrote on his Truth Social platform, “should not make a deal on the debt ceiling unless they get everything they want (including the ‘kitchen sink’). That’s the way the Democrats have always dealt with us. Do not fold!”

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, aimed fire at Biden, accusing the president of “wait[ing] months before agreeing to negotiate with Speaker McCarthy on a spending deal.

“They are the only two who can reach an agreement,” McConnell said. “It is past time for the White House to get serious. Time is of the essence.”

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, countered: “We are in a crisis, for ONE REASON – House Republicans threat to burn down the entire economy if they don’t get their way.”

In a recent column for the New York Times, the Harvard law professor Laurence A Tribe, an expert in constitutional law, accused Republicans of playing “chicken or, maybe more accurately, Russian roulette” with the US debt.

Tribe went on to outline his theory of how Biden has the authority to raise the ceiling on his own, under the 14th amendment, which says the US national debt “shall not be questioned”.

Tribe wrote: “Mr Biden must tell Congress in no uncertain terms – and as soon as possible, before it’s too late to avert a financial crisis – that the United States will pay all its bills as they come due, even if the treasury department must borrow more than Congress has said it can.”

Related: Democrats to urge Biden to use 14th amendment powers to avert ‘global economic catastrophe’

Such a step has support from prominent Democrats.

In a letter earlier this week, a group of senators including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (an independent who caucuses with the party), said: “Using this authority would allow the United States to continue to pay its bills on-time, without delay, preventing a global economic catastrophe.”

But Biden has resisted so far.

On Friday, an unnamed official told the Washington Post the Biden White House still believed “a path to a reasonable bipartisan budget agreement” was possible, “as long as both sides recognise that they won’t get everything they want and compromise is necessary”.

The Post also said the two sides had not agreed when to meet again.

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