Biden starts to throw some punches in the debt ceiling fight

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VALHALLA, N. Y. — President Joe Biden took his debt ceiling appeal to the road on Wednesday, part of an effort to more aggressively utilize the bully pulpit as default inches closer.

Speaking just one day after an Oval Office meeting with congressional leadership led to little progress in striking a deal to ward off default as the deadline rapidly approaches, the White House’s choice of venue was deliberately chosen: a suburban GOP-held New York state district within commuting distance of Wall Street. The area also is home to a Republican lawmaker who narrowly captured a district last year that broke for Biden in 2020.

Biden made the case that Republicans were “holding the economy hostage” in their unwillingness to pass a clean debt ceiling raise. And the GOP’s budget proposal, the president argued, would also devastate the economy.

“Republican threats are dangerous and they make no sense,” Biden said to a crowd of roughly 300 people at SUNY Westchester Community College.

The speech from Biden reflected a hardening posture from both him and his team. Inside the White House, aides continue to believe that they have the upper hand in negotiations and that a deal to raise the debt ceiling will be reached. But there is creeping anxiety over the state of brinkmanship too.

In an effort to try and forge through it, the White House is now making a conscious push to utilize the arrows in its quiver. Biden, having limited his press appearances up to this point, took questions from reporters for the second day in a row on Wednesday. Having gone months without stepping in a GOP-held district, his team is already considering similar trips to pressure swing seat Republicans to defy their party leadership.

The district Biden visited Wednesday is home to Republican Rep. Mike Lawler, who defeated incumbent Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney by less than a percentage point in 2022. And in a reflection of the sticks-and-carrots approach the White House is choosing to deploy, Biden opened his remarks by thanking Lawler for attending. He said the congressmember was “not one of these MAGA Republicans.”

“I don’t want to get him in trouble by saying anything nice about him,” Biden quipped.

Lawler later told reporters that Biden made the claim backstage that his visit was not intended to put any pressure on the vulnerable Republican. “It was a very cordial conversation,” said the congressmember.

Lawler also defended House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s approach in linking budget conversations with the debt ceiling, pushing for a cut in spending while noting that Democrats do not have the votes to do it alone. But the freshman lawmaker added that he felt it was his responsibility to be open to bipartisan talks.

“I showed up because I believe very strongly that we all have an obligation to work together,” Lawler said. “We’ve got three weeks to go and no time to waste.”

White House aides said Biden’s next domestic trip had not been scheduled but did not rule out visiting a similar district to pressure a Republican who will be defending a seat won by the president in 2020. There are 18 Republicans who won in Biden districts, and White House aides have long believed that they could be susceptible to courtship campaigns.

Soon after the new class of lawmakers took office in January, senior White House officials and aides from the Office of Legislative Affairs fanned out across the Hill, introducing themselves to freshman lawmakers and staff and zeroing in on moderate Republicans whom they imagine might be getable in a debt ceiling vote. Biden aides have long believed that McCarthy’s hold on his party was tenuous, and defections were possible.

But all of those 18 Republicans voted with the majority of the party to pass the leadership bill that would cut spending and slash key planks of Biden’s domestic agenda alongside a debt ceiling increase. And the swing GOP members have claimed that there has been little in the way of West Wing follow-up since those introductions. Lawler said his only White House meeting came last month at his own request.

“I would think you would be trying to do a full court press,” said Lawler. “I haven’t seen any significant outreach on their part to really find pathways forward.”

White House aides disputed the claim, saying that, at times, the White House outreach was rejected by Republicans so they could preserve a talking point. But aides did not provide examples of recent outreach efforts.

“The president’s historic record bears out what his team has made clear to every Republican in Congress in our frequent engagements: he’s eager to keep working across the aisle to deliver more progress for American families,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates.

The White House has also applied public pressure on those lawmakers. In recent days, the West Wing has seized upon the estimated impact of the Republican spending bill’s cuts on the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA released a study suggesting that it would cut 81,000 jobs, reduce outpatient visits by 30 million, and increase the disability claims backlog by an estimated 134,000.

The White House blasted out the specific toll on 18 GOP-led congressional districts — the very 18 won by Biden.

Though Biden deemed the Tuesday meeting “productive,” he leveled criticism at McCarthy for sometimes making remarks that were “maybe a little bit over the top” and for not knowing what he had proposed in his GOP bill. He also warned that not everyone at the negotiating table pledged to avoid default.

The White House has signaled it is open to spending cuts but only after the debt ceiling gets a clean lift, as it has done over the last decade including under Republican presidents. Biden is scheduled to meet again Friday with McCarthy, Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

Until then, White House staff and aides to the four congressional leaders would continue to hold discussions, those involved said. White House aides believe that the politics of the debate remain on their side but recent polls suggest that both parties would be blamed.

Biden, who is slowly ramping up his reelection campaign, said Wednesday he was “pleased” to hear McConnell reaffirm after the meeting that the U.S. would not default on its debt, but warned that “this is not your father’s Republican Party.”

“This is not a joke and people shouldn’t think this is something they’re going there in D.C. that’s not going to impact my everyday life,” said Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the majority leader of the New York State Senate. “This makes a difference, and I hope people understand If they have a congressperson who is refusing to act because of the MAGA Republicans, it has to stop now.”

To underscore the seriousness of the situation, Biden this week acknowledged for the first time that he was “considering” the use of the 14th amendment as a means to circumvent the debt ceiling standoff. But he cast some doubt on whether it could work: There would be legal challenges, and the ceiling would still be reached without an extension. Aides said Wednesday that it was unlikely to be used, though the idea could be explored after this crisis passed so the situation would not be repeated.

White House aides said Biden was also likely to still travel to the G-7 summit in Japan next week but left open the door to the president cutting the trip short — he is also slated to make stops in Australia and Papua New Guinea — if a debt ceiling deal has not been reached.

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