WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reached an “agreement in principle” to raise the nation's legal debt ceiling late Saturday as they raced to strike a deal to limit federal spending and avert a potentially disastrous U.S. default.
However, the agreement risks angering both Democratic and Republican sides with the concessions made to reach it. Negotiators agreed to some Republican demands for increased work requirements for recipients of food stamps that had sparked an uproar from House Democrats as a nonstarter.
Support from both parties will be needed to win congressional approval next week before a June 5 deadline.
The Democratic president and Republican speaker reached the agreement after the two spoke earlier Saturday evening by phone, said McCarthy. The country and the world have been watching and waiting for a resolution to a political standoff that threatened the U.S. and global economies.
With the outlines of a deal in place, the legislative package could be drafted and shared with lawmakers in time for votes early next week in the House and later in the Senate.
Central to the package is a two-year budget deal that would hold spending flat for 2024 and impose limits for 2025 in exchange for raising the debt limit for two years, pushing the volatile political issue past the next presidential election.
The agreement would limit food stamp eligibility for able-bodied adults up to age 54, but Biden was able to secure waivers for veterans and the homeless.
The two sides had also reached for an ambitious overhaul of federal permitting to ease development of energy projects and transmission lines. Instead, the agreement puts in place changes in the the National Environmental Policy Act that will designate “a single lead agency” to develop economic reviews, in hopes of streamlining the process.
The deal came together after Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told Congress that the United States could default on its debt obligations by June 5 — four days later than previously estimated — if lawmakers did not act in time to raise the federal debt ceiling. The extended “X-date” gave the two sides a bit of extra time as they scrambled for a deal.
Biden also spoke earlier in the day with Democratic leaders in Congress to discuss the status of the talks.
The Republican House speaker had gathered top allies behind closed doors at the Capitol as negotiators pushed for a deal that would avoid a first-ever government default while also making spending cuts that House Republicans are demanding.
But as another day dragged on with financial disaster looming closer, it had appeared some of the problems over policy issues that dogged talks all week remained unresolved.
Both sides have suggested one of the main holdups was a GOP effort to expand work requirements for recipients of food stamps and other federal aid programs, a longtime Republican goal that Democrats have strenuously opposed. The White House said the Republican proposals were “cruel and senseless.”
Biden has said the work requirements for Medicaid would be a nonstarter. He seemed potentially open to negotiating minor changes on food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, despite objections from rank-and-file Democrats.
McCarthy, who dashed out before the lunch hour Saturday and arrived back at the Capitol with a big box of takeout, declined to elaborate on those discussions. One of his negotiators, Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves, said there was “not a chance” that Republicans might relent on the work requirements issue.
Americans and the world were uneasily watching the negotiating brinkmanship that could throw the U.S. economy into chaos and sap world confidence in the nation’s leadership.
Anxious retirees and others were already making contingency plans for missed checks, with the next Social Security payments due next week.
Yellen said failure to act by the new date would “cause severe hardship to American families, harm our global leadership position and raise questions about our ability to defend our national security interests.”
The president, spending part of the weekend at Camp David, continued to talk with his negotiating team multiple times a day, signing off on offers and counteroffers.
Any deal would need to be a political compromise in a divided Congress. Many of the hard-right Trump-aligned Republicans in Congress have long been skeptical of the Treasury’s projections, and they are pressing McCarthy to hold out.
Lawmakers are not expected to return to work from the Memorial Day weekend before Tuesday, at the earliest, and McCarthy has promised lawmakers he will abide by the rule to post any bill for 72 hours before voting.
The Democratic-held Senate has largely stayed out of the negotiations, leaving the talks to Biden and McCarthy. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has pledged to move quickly to send a compromise package to Biden’s desk.
Weeks of talks have failed to produce a deal in part because the Biden administration resisted for months on negotiating with McCarthy, arguing that the country’s full faith and credit should not be used as leverage to extract other partisan priorities.
But House Republicans united behind a plan to cut spending, narrowly passing legislation in late April that would raise the debt ceiling in exchange for the spending reductions.