‘Shrink the room’: How Biden and McCarthy reached a debt limitation deal and averted catastrophe

WASHINGTON (AP) — It was advice Mitch McConnell had previously offered Joe Biden: To resolve the debt limit standoff, he needed to strike a deal with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — and McCarthy alone . But after the four top congressional leaders first met with the president in early May, the Senate Minority Leader felt the need to reaffirm his advice.

After returning from the White House that day, McConnell called the president to privately urge him to ‘shrink the room’ – meaning no direct involvement in the talks for himself, the majority leader in Senate Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

That, McConnell stressed to Biden, was the only way to avoid a potentially economy-shattering default.

A week later, Biden and McCarthy essentially went that route, bringing in a handful of trusted envoys to broker a deal that would lift the debt limit. It was a turning point in an impasse that, until then, had seemed unsolvable.

Having lived through the debacle of a 2011 debt limit fight, Biden would take no concessions for a task he saw as the core responsibility of Congress. But McCarthy, pressured by conservatives insisting on sweeping changes to federal spending, was determined to use the country’s borrowing power as leverage even if it brought the United States closer to default.

The ensuing melee showed how two of Washington’s most powerful figures – who share a belief in the power of personal relationships, despite not having much between them – jointly avoided an unprecedented default that would have could have ravaged the economy and remained unknown political consequences. This is the story of an underrated Speaker of the House determined to defy expectations that he could not cope with a complex fight against the debt limit, and a President who cut the noise of his own party to ensure that a fault would not occur under his watch.

Even with a resounding 314 to 117 vote in the House, the episode tests the durability of McCarthy’s presidency and his ability to tame a restless hard right flank.


McCarthy, now emboldened, is unfazed.

He reflected on his election to the presidency after the House passed the debt limitation package, referring to his long battle to claim the gavel in January. “Every question you asked me (was), what could we survive, what could we even do? I told you then, that’s not how you start, that’s how that you finish.

This account of the week-long saga of how Washington defused the debt ceiling crisis is based on interviews with lawmakers, senior White House officials and senior congressional aides, some who asked anonymity to discuss details of private negotiations.

The five Biden and McCarthy negotiators who came to the talks armed with political gravity and empowered by their constituents were perhaps the most critical in lifting the deadlocks. The presence of presidential adviser Steve Ricchetti, who speaks for Biden like no one else, and Shalanda Young, now director of Office and Management and Budget, who cut her teeth as a senior assistant beloved of Congress, has been particularly comforting to Republicans. the complex annual appropriation process.

Young and North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, one of McCarthy’s dealmakers, became so close that they checked in each morning by phone while making their respective daycare deposits. Meanwhile, she and the other GOP negotiator, Rep. Garret Graves, who represents the south-central part of Louisiana where Young is from, ribbed over who had the best okra recipe and engaged debt limit talks at a White House celebration for Louisiana State University’s national champion women’s basketball team.

The five negotiators — Graves, McHenry, Ricchetti, Young and Director of Legislative Affairs Louisa Terrell — met daily in a stately office on the first floor of the Capitol, under murals painted by 19th-century muralist Constantino Brumidi. Inside, they would seriously focus on priorities and red lines to figure out how they could reach an agreement.


On May 19, the negotiations got bogged down.

Republicans were losing patience as the White House seemed unwilling to move to cut federal spending. For the GOP, anything less than that was a failure.

At a morning meeting that Friday, White House officials pushed McHenry and Graves to put a formal offer on the table, but at that point frustrated Republicans decided to go public.

Republicans told reporters the talks had temporarily stalled. Graves, dressed in a cap and blue button-up shirt that seemed more suited to a fishing trip than high-stakes deals, said as he briskly strode through the Capitol, “We’ve decided to press on hiatus because it’s just not productive”,

“We weren’t going to play games here,” Graves later said of his and McHenry’s frustrations.

The friction was not going to subside. When negotiations resumed that evening, McHenry and Graves presented a new proposal to administration officials: it not only revived more of the rejected provisions in the GOP’s debt limit bill, but also included the House Republicans Border Security Bill for good measure. .

A White House official called the offer “regressive.”

The White House went public with its own frustrations as negotiations appeared to be going awry, first with a lengthy statement from communications director Ben LaBolt and then from Biden himself at a press conference in Hiroshima, Japan. , where he was attending a summit of the world’s great democracies.

“Now it’s time for the other side to change its extreme positions,” the president said. “Because a lot of what they’ve already come up with is just, quite frankly, unacceptable.”

Optimism, late nights and gummy worms

Even as the public rhetoric heated up, there were signs that the talks were starting to take a better turn.

As Biden was leaving Japan, he called McCarthy from Air Force One, and the speaker appeared more upbeat than he had in days. Buoyed by coffee, gummy worms and burritos, the negotiators worked grueling hours, mostly on Capitol Hill, but once at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where they enjoyed Call Your Mother bagel sandwiches sent by Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff.

One session lasted until 2:30 a.m. Graves, at another time, showed reporters an app on his phone that tracked his sleep, which showed he spent an average of three hours a night on the home stretch .

Still, McCarthy sent lawmakers home over Memorial Day weekend, which McHenry says helped.

“The tone of the White House negotiators became much more serious and much more grounded in the realities that they were going to have to come to terms with,” McHenry said.


On May 27, Biden and McCarthy announced a tentative deal and were now expected to sell the deal for good.

The day before the vote, McCarthy gathered House Republicans in the Capitol basement, rolled pizzas and walked lawmakers through the bill, while challenging members of the Freedom Caucus to use the same divisive language they used at a press conference earlier today. By the end of the meeting, it was clear that McCarthy had brought the revolt under control.

Meanwhile, the White House had its own job of placating rank-and-file Democrats.

Biden and McCarthy were a study in contrasting styles. The speaker talked about the debt limit talks at every turn of the negotiations to frame the debate on his terms; the president remained purposefully silent, afraid to smear anything before the deal was finalized.

Even as the deal closed, Biden had privately tried to assuage his party’s concerns. After the Congressional Progressive Caucus publicly eviscerated the few details they knew of, particularly about tougher requirements for federal backstop programs, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., got a call that evening. .

It was Biden. He assured her that his negotiators were working hard to downplay Republican-drafted changes to programs that offer food stamps and cash assistance.

“I believe if we hadn’t done that, it would have been much worse than what I heard,” Jayapal said.

After the deal was finalized, through phone calls and virtual briefings, White House officials answered questions, explained the intricacies of the deal, and responded to complaints from lawmakers about their communications strategy. As of Thursday, senior White House officials had personally called more than 130 lawmakers.

Biden himself phoned. On a call, he spoke with Rep. Annie Kuster, DN.H., leader of the center-left New Democratic Coalition, and thanked her for the group’s efforts to ensure the adoption of the agreement.

“I appreciate that he knows this institution so well and understands what it takes to get those votes to get us across the line and uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America” , Kuster said. “We all took an oath.”

Late Wednesday night, as the House voted its approval with strong bipartisan support, Biden watched from the Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs, where he had traveled for a commencement address at the Air Force Academy. On the phone with Biden throughout were Ricchetti and Terrell, listening in from the West Wing with other legislative aides, munching on more pizza.

In a statement after the vote, Biden sounded grateful — and relieved.

“Tonight, the House took a critical step forward to prevent a first-ever default and protect our nation’s historic and hard-won economic recovery,” he said. “This budget deal is a bipartisan compromise. Neither side got everything they wanted. It’s the responsibility to govern.”

Then the Senate worked toward its own vote.


AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro and AP White House Correspondent Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

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