How Past Debt Limit Crises Shaped Biden’s No-Negotiation Stance
As a debt limit crisis loomed in 2011, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. described early negotiations with Republicans as civil, at one point suggesting that the process was about finding out who was willing to trade their side’s bicycle for the other side’s golf clubs.
The genteel vibe came to a halt that summer, when Speaker John A. Boehner walked away from a deal because he was not able to wrangle the Republicans in his caucus. Months later, congressional leaders agreed to raise the debt ceiling and cut trillions in federal spending to avoid default.
The bitter compromise convinced Mr. Biden of two things, according to a half-dozen current and former advisers: Do not negotiate with a speaker who cannot reach a deal — Mr. Boehner’s caucus was arguably less radical than the current bloc of House Republicans — and do not turn the process of avoiding government default into a discussion about budgeting.
“That was kind of a terrifying transition, because all of the sudden you’re negotiating over whether or not you’re going to default,” Jacob J. Lew, the Treasury secretary under President Barack Obama, recalled of the 2011 saga.
Mr. Lew added, “It left you with the real sense that this could just as easily have failed.”
Twelve years later, the government is again at risk of defaulting on its debt for the first time, and Republicans in the House are again demanding spending cuts in exchange for agreeing to raise the debt limit.. Faced with the highest-stakes economic obstacle of his presidency and left with the searing memory of Obama-era fights, Mr. Biden has held firm that the discussion over raising the $31.4 trillion debt limit must take place separately from spending negotiations, advisers say.
That has not always been the case. Republicans have pointed out in recent weeks that, as a senator, Mr. Biden railed against budget deficits during the Reagan presidency. In 1984, he presented a proposal to freeze federal spending for a year. He said his plan would “shock the living devil out of everyone in the U.S. Senate,” but it went nowhere.
And as vice president, Mr. Biden tied the debt limit and budget issues in 2011, when he was negotiating for the Obama administration. In remarks to reporters on Tuesday, Mr. Biden suggested that he only did that because he had been instructed to get a deal done.
“I got a call that morning at 6 o’clock saying that the Republican leader would only talk to me, and there was no time left,” he said. “And so I sat down, and I got instructions from the White House to settle it. And that was my job. But I had no notice.”
In the spring of 2011, Mr. Biden and a bipartisan group of congressional leaders met frequently to hash out their differences. In early meetings, the group gathered at Blair House, where foreign dignitaries stay when they visit Washington. That summer, Mr. Boehner broke off negotiations, in large part because rank-and-file Republicans would not agree to raise taxes on the wealthy. A complex deal was reached weeks later, leaving Mr. Obama to explain to Democratic voters why he was not able to raise taxes and had agreed to at least $2.4 trillion in spending cuts.
According to Mr. Biden’s aides, the scar tissue remains.
The second debt ceiling battle of the Obama presidency, in 2013, was another test of a divided government: Mr. Obama flatly refused to negotiate, and Republicans, suffering from plunging poll numbers and the political toll of a downgrade in the country’s credit rating, eventually backed down.
Mr. Biden has since argued that there should be no strings attached to raising the federal debt limit, which is the cap on the amount of money that the United States is authorized to borrow to fund the government and meet its financial obligations, including paying out social safety net programs and funding the salaries of the armed forces.
Biden aides point out that the obvious: Relations between Republicans and Democrats have become even more fraught in the past decade. The last time a divided government threatened to take debt limit negotiations to the brink, Twitter was still nascent, and the idea of a President Donald J. Trump was little more than a sideshow.
Now, in an era in which a large group of House Republicans remains loyal to Mr. Trump and would like to inflict pain on Mr. Biden as a matter of political principle, there is little compromise to be found on matters of substance, including the budget.
“When your demand is keep the economy from falling off, and their demand is everything else, how do you meet the middle on that?” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said in an interview. “My recollection is that everyone believed that we would never go down that path again.”
Republicans argue that, rather than taking the nation’s debt obligations hostage, they are responding to Democrats who have long been blind to the ballooning interest costs that accompany the debt.
In a meeting with Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday, several advisers said, the president tried to emphasize the consequences of default and to get leaders to agree that it must be avoided at all costs. But Biden administration officials acknowledge that even if everyone agrees default must be avoided, working back from there will be the painful part.
“There’s a very big gap between where the president is and where the Republicans are,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, who has warned that the United States could default as soon as June 1, said on Monday.
Mr. Biden said that he had asked the group to meet again on Friday, and that staff members would meet throughout the week. Two advisers said they expected similar meetings would take place regularly. Still, officials on both sides are not overly optimistic that a painless agreement will be reached in the short term.
On Tuesday, Mr. McCarthy said that he “didn’t find progress” in the meeting and criticized the president’s suggestion that he may look at invoking a clause in the 14th Amendment that would compel the federal government to continue issuing new debt should the government run out of cash.
“I would think you’re kind of a failure in working with people across the sides of the aisle or working with your own party to get something done,” Mr. McCarthy said.
Mr. Biden and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, stay in regular contact, aides say, but the president’s advisers are reluctant to pin hopes on Mr. McConnell finding a way out of the debt ceiling morass.
The president also has an untested Democratic ally in Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the House minority leader, who would need to marshal the votes necessary to deliver on any compromise. (Mr. Pfeiffer pointed out that during past debates, Mr. McConnell has swooped in at the last minute, “when he has the most leverage,” reaching an agreement “that is basically enough for him, it passes, then he leaves town.”)
There will be little common ground over the budget. Mr. Biden wants to expand federal spending and reduce future debt by taxing corporations and high earners, a plan his administration argues could reduce the growth in the deficit by some $3 trillion over the next decade. Republicans want to extend the tax cuts approved by Mr. Trump, which would expire at the end of 2025.
Late last month, Mr. McCarthy pushed a spending bill through that would cut deep into the president’s domestic agenda and slash discretionary spending, though Republicans have not outlined what might be cut and why. Since then, the Biden White House has been happy to fill the void, accusing Republicans of wanting to cut everything from veterans’ health care spending to Social Security. (Mr. McCarthy has called this a “lie.”)
Ahead of the next meeting, the president’s advisers said they did not expect Mr. Biden’s message to change but suggested that both sides would have to make concessions. Mr. Biden’s comment on Tuesday that he might be willing to support rescinding unspent coronavirus relief funds — and fulfilling a Republican demand — could be the sort of compromise that would prevent talks from calcifying.
But Mr. Biden’s aides also expect him to stress the political stakes for Republicans over the next few weeks should they refuse to budge on the debt limit. He will do so not just from the White House but from congressional districts.
On Wednesday, the president was in the Hudson Valley region of New York, where Representative Marc Molinaro, a Republican whose district includes parts of the area, has accused him of playing a “game of chicken.”