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 compromise. 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 the government’s projected June 5 debt default.
The Democratic president and Republican speaker reached the agreement after the two spoke earlier Saturday evening by phone. 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.
“The agreement represents a compromise, which means not everyone gets what they want,” Biden said in a statement late Saturday night. “That’s the responsibility of governing,” he said.
Biden called the agreement “good news for the American people, because it prevents what could have been a catastrophic default and would have led to an economic recession, retirement accounts devastated, and millions of jobs lost.”
McCarthy in brief remarks at the Capitol said that “we still have a lot of work to do.”
But the Republican speaker said: “I believe this is an agreement in principle that’s worthy of the American people.”
With the outlines of a deal in place, the legislative package could be drafted and shared with lawmakers in time for House votes as soon as Wednesday, and later in the Senate.
Central to the package is a two-year budget deal that would hold spending flat for 2024 and increase it by 1% for 2025 in exchange for raising the debt limit for two years, pushing the volatile political issue past the next presidential election.
Driving hard for a deal to impose tougher work requirements on government aid recipients, Republicans achieved some but not all of what they wanted. The agreement would raise the age for existing work requirements on able-bodied adults without children from 49 to 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 would put in place changes in the landmark 1970s’ National Environmental Policy Act that will designate “a single lead agency” to develop environmental 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 the 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 had seemed potentially open to negotiating 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. and global 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 that resisted any tax increases to curb deficits, and instead cut spending, narrowly passing legislation in late April that was their opening offer in talks with the White House.