WASHINGTON—President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reached an “agreement in principle” to raise the nation’s legal debt ceiling, but now Congress must rush to approve the spending cuts package in a matter of days to avert a potentially disastrous US default.
The agreement risks angering both Democratic and Republican sides as lawmakers Sunday begin to unpack the concessions made to compromise. Negotiators agreed to some Republican demands for increased work requirements for recipients of food stamps that had sparked uproar from House Democrats as a nonstarter. But they stopped short of greater spending cuts overall that Republicans wanted.
Support from both parties will be needed to win congressional approval before a projected June 5 government default on US debts.
The Democratic president and Republican speaker reached the agreement after the two spoke Saturday evening by phone. The country and the world have been watching and waiting for a resolution to a political standoff that threatened the US 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 next week 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. 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. Lifting the US debt limit, now at $31 trillion, allows more borrowing to pay the nation’s already incurred bills.
Biden also spoke earlier in the day with Democratic leaders in Congress to discuss the status of the talks. White House officials will brief House Democrats on a Sunday video call.
McCarthy commands only a slim Republican majority in the House, powered by hard-right conservatives who may resist any deal as insufficient as they try to slash spending. But compromising with Democrats for votes, he risks losing support from his own rank-and-file, setting up a career-challenging moment for the new speaker.
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.
Americans and the world were uneasily watching the negotiating brinkmanship that could throw the US 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.”
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.
Associated Press writers Stephen Groves, Fatima Hussein, Farnoush Amiri, Seung Min Kim and video journalist Rick Gentilo contributed to this report.
Image credits: AP/Susan Walsh