WASHINGTON (AP) — Not so long ago, Joe Biden and Republican leader Kevin McCarthy used to talk things over at breakfast in Biden’s vice presidential home at the Naval Observatory.
Biden was intent in those days on “keeping up relations with the opposition party,” as he writes in his memoir, and the new House majority leader often arrived with fellow GOP lawmakers in tow.
But now, with a potential national debt crisis l ooming, those morning meetings in 2015 seem a political lifetime ago as Democratic President Biden and McCarthy, the new House speaker, prepare for their first official meeting Wednesday at the White House.
“You know, when I met with him as the vice president, he was always eager to sit down and talk,” McCarthy recalled to The Associated Press ahead of the meeting. “He was always a person who would like to try to find solutions, work together.”
Biden has signaled no such open-ended hospitality this time as newly emboldened House Republicans court a risky debt ceiling showdown.
At a fundraiser Tuesday in New York, Biden called McCarthy a “decent man” who was being pulled by demands from restive Republicans.
“He made commitments that are just absolutely off the wall” in order to win the speaker’s gavel, Biden said.
Two affable leaders known for their willingness to strike deals, Biden and McCarthy find themselves charging headlong into uncomfortable political terrain in hardball negotiations over the nation’s debt limit.
A generation apart — McCarthy, 58, has been in Congress just a third of the time that Biden, 80, has held elected office — the two men are deeply familiar with the ways of Washington and positions of power.
Both have built political brands on their ability to meet with all comers, forging deals where none seemed likely. They’ve shown mutual respect during their limited interactions in Biden’s presidency, according to one senior White House official. And both have been here before, veterans of the last fiscal showdown, in 2011, when Biden, as vice president to Barack Obama, tried to negotiate an endgame to a standoff with McCarthy’s predecessors in Congress.
The political as well as economic stakes are apparent this time as Biden considers another run for the White House and McCarthy strains to keep his new job as speaker of the House, including its right-flank Republicans.
“Just like in 2011, it’s not going to be real kumbaya,” said Neil Bradley, vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a former top aide to former House GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Bradley, who was part of earlier Biden talks, said, “These are both seasoned leaders who understand what it takes to get things done in Washington.”
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has notified Congress that it will need to raise the debt ceiling, now set at $31 trillion, to allow continued borrowing to pay the nation’s already accrued bills. While the Treasury Department has been able to launch “extraordinary measures” to temporarily avoid a debt default, that’s only expected to last until June.
The debt ceiling showdown carries echoes, but also differences, from 2011, when the House Republican “tea party” majority rose to power, demanding budget cuts and threatening a potentially catastrophic federal debt default.
Recalling those difficult negotiations, Biden has been reluctant to negotiate with the new House Republicans under McCarthy. Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, the White House released a memo outlining the “two questions” Biden will pose to the Republican leader.
“Will the speaker commit to the bedrock principle that the United States will never default on its financial obligations?” reads one of the questions, in part. And: “When will Speaker McCarthy and House Republicans release their Budget?”
The memo, from White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and Shalanda Young, the Office of Management and Budget director, noted that Biden will be releasing the administration’s budget on March 9 — notably blowing past a February deadline — and called on McCarthy to detail precisely how Republicans would cut the government spending that they insist is too high.
McCarthy all but invited himself to the White House as he pushed for the meeting with Biden. And he has made it clear he is willing to bargain, announcing over the weekend he will not be proposing cuts to Medicare or Social Security as Republicans try to slash federal spending as part of any debt ceiling deal.
While McCarthy comes to the negotiating table with the power of the new House majority behind him, he is also viewed as coming somewhat empty-handed.
It’s not at all clear the new speaker will be able to deliver the votes needed from divided Republicans in Congress on any debt deal. He has promised his GOP hardliners a return to fiscal 2022 spending levels, but even that might not be enough budget cutting for some of them.
It’s a potential repeat of the 2011-12 fiscal showdown, when the Obama administration negotiated with Republicans before finally settling on a deal that Biden negotiated with the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to ease the crisis.
“We’re all behind Kevin, wishing him well in the negotiations,” McConnell said Tuesday, his own Senate Republicans in the minority.
“The deal has to be cut, obviously, between the House majority and the Democratic president, in order for it to have a chance to survive over here.”
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said that Biden and McCarthy “don’t have the historic relationship that Senator McConnell and Biden have had through the years, but I do think circumstances necessitate and dictate at times that people have to come together — whether they like it or not.”
Like the Republicans, Democrats are skeptical of dealing with the opposing party. They’re pushing Biden to drive a hardline bargain against any trade-offs.
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Pramila Jayapal said Biden “has seen over the last two years who he’s negotiating with — these are not people who are actually about negotiating something that makes sense for the working people.”
The president, she added, has been “such a champion of working people and reversing inequality” that any budget-slashing deal with Republicans “would reverse all of that work.”
Refusal to negotiate with Republicans has been off-brand for Biden, who has championed his decades of experience in building relationships with lawmakers, governors and administrations of both parties.
In many ways, Biden and McCarthy are picking up where they left off from those breakfast meetings.
“I think he’ll start by listening more than he talks, by getting to know Speaker McCarthy a little bit more as a person and by exploring what their common priorities might be,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a close ally of the president.
Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a former history professor, said of the two: “They’re career public servants. They’re both intensely political. I think they’re both hail-well-met fellows. It seems to me that they’ll have a reasonably good discussion.”
Associated Press writer Josh Boak contributed from New York.