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Angry Biden refuses to negotiate on debt limit even as America speeds toward economic disaster

By Sarah May on
 May 8, 2023

With the clock ticking and the Treasury Department's June 1 threshold for potential default looming, President Joe Biden appears to be digging in on his unwillingness to negotiate with Republicans on the debt ceiling ahead of a Tuesday meeting with congressional leaders on the issue.

Speaking to MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle in an interview that aired Friday, Biden asserted that his economy is stronger than the one over which former President Donald Trump presided, and therefore, he has no need to bargain with the opposition party the way his predecessor did.

Biden Stands Firm

Asked by Ruhle about the potential crisis bearing down on the country if an agreement on the debt ceiling is not reached in the very near future, Biden contended that “no one's ever tied” budgetary or spending demands to the need to raise the debt limit as Republicans are now doing.

“[T]he idea someone, for the first time, is saying, unless you pass this ridiculous budget I have – which is the way I would characterize what the Republican MAGA budget is – unless you pass this budget, we're not going to increase the debt limit and we're going to go bankrupt, we're going to – the United States of America is going to renege for the first time in history on its debt,” Biden began.

The president continued, “And you just can't – not one's ever tied them together before. I've said to the Republican leader, here's the deal: Take the debt limit, pass it like you did three times when Trump was president, and he increased the whole national debt for 200 years by 40%.”

Suggesting he has leverage that Trump did not, Biden added, “He ballooned the debt, he created unemploy[ment]. Look, when I came to office, we had incredibly high unemployment, we were in a situation where we had very little movement on anything going on” and attempted to contrast his economic achievements to date in support of his demand for a “clean” debt limit increase with no spending cuts attached.

Republicans Fire Back

Though House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (CA-20) has already made his position clear, having overseen the passage in the lower chamber of a measure that would raise the debt limit – on a year-to-year basis – in exchange for a series of spending cuts, he received additional support over the weekend from a group of Republicans in the Senate, as the Daily Mail reports.

Spearheaded by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), a contingent of 43 Republican senators pledged to derail any debt ceiling increase that did not have “substantive” spending reductions attached.

The group is sufficiently sizable to successfully filibuster a “clean” debt limit increase, and it includes in its membership Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as evidence of the seriousness of the threat.

“Our economy is in free fall due to unsustainable fiscal policies,” the senators' letter argues. “This trajectory must be addressed with fiscal reforms. As such, we will not be voting for cloture on any bill that raises the debt ceiling without substantive spending and budget reforms.”

Alternatives Floated

Given the apparent stalemate likely to persist in the run-up to Biden's Tuesday meeting with McCarthy, the White House has floated a couple of options designed to avert the consequences of a June 1 default, including the possibility of a short-term increase, as The Hill reported.

Though White House Office of Management and Budget Shalanda Young said Thursday, “I'm sure one of the things on the table we will have to work through is how long. I'm not going to take anything off the table,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) have since reiterated their desire for a clean increase so as not to “kick the can down the road.”

National Review reports that another potential option being explored by Biden is that of invoking the 14th Amendment to ignore the hurdle of the debt ceiling and continue to issue new debt as if it did not exist.

In furtherance of such a contentious strategy, supporters of the move would emphasize the 14th Amendment's provision that states, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned,” which some argue means that the debt limit is unconstitutional in its own right, and the president can – and perhaps should – disregard it.

Yellen Balks

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Sunday cautioned that any invocation of the 14th Amendment would represent a “constitutional crisis,” as The Hill reported, but did her best to declare a position on whether Biden ought to go that route to stave off default.

Yellen was asked about the prospect during an appearance on ABC's This Week, and she said that at the present moment, “Our priority is to make sure that Congress does its job.”

“There is no way to protect our financial system in our economy, other than Congress doing its job and raising the debt ceiling and enabling us to pay our bills, and we should not get to the point where we need to consider whether the president can go on issuing debt. This would be a constitutional crisis,” Yellen went on.

In terms of whether Biden is indeed ready to pull that very controversial trigger, the president told Ruhle in Friday's interview, “I've not gotten there yet.” Should Tuesday's talks prove fruitless, however, there appears to be at least some possibility that he just might.