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Bipartisan scramble to corral support for debt ceiling deal to avoid default disaster

Lawmakers in Washington were set on Sunday night to see the details of the deal to raise the US debt ceiling struck between President Joe Biden and House speaker Kevin McCarthy, with the aim of putting a bill to a vote as early as Wednesday and avoiding a catastrophic and unprecedented default in early June.

Biden on Sunday afternoon told reporters when arriving back at the White House, after attending the high school graduation of one of his granddaughters in Delaware, that there were no sticking points left between him and McCarthy. When asked if he was confident the deal would be voted through Congress and reach his desk, he replied “yes”.

He and the speaker were due to speak again to, as Biden put it: “Make sure all the Ts are crossed and the Is are dotted,” adding, “I think we’re in good shape.”

But late on Sunday afternoon, lawmakers in the House and Senate were reportedly on calls with congressional leaders, expressing frustrations at a compromise deal, as efforts began in earnest to sell the package and win passage of the legislation this week.

Biden and McCarthy had held a 90-minute phone call earlier on Saturday evening to discuss the deal before the outline agreement was first announced that night, with the Democratic US president joining the call from the Camp David retreat and the Republican speaker in the nation’s capital.

Biden had said after that: “The agreement represents a compromise, which means not everyone gets what they want. That’s the responsibility of governing,” while calling the pact “an important step forward”.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks to the media as he leaves a meeting on the debt ceiling with President Joe Biden outside the West Wing on 22 May.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks to the media as he leaves a meeting on the debt ceiling with President Joe Biden outside the West Wing on 22 May. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

McCarthy will have to get the legislation through the Republican-controlled House, where his party holds only a five-seat majority. He faces hostility from his far-right wing members who are expected to balk at spending cuts that they deem not deep enough, while progressives may be more likely to choke down cuts and benefits restrictions that they loathe in order to pass the deal.

Earlier on Sunday morning, McCarthy boasted on Fox News Sunday that “there’s not one thing in the bill for Democrats” even though Biden achieved his fundamental goal of persuading the Republican to agree to a debt ceiling increase. McCarthy predicted House GOP members will support the deal.

McCarthy added at the press conference later: “We are going to put the bill on the [House] floor in 72 hours and pass it.”

To reduce spending, as Republicans had insisted, the package includes a two-year budget deal that would hold spending flat for 2024 and impose limits for 2025. That’s in exchange for raising the debt limit for two years, until after the next election.

It also expands some work requirements for certain food-stamp recipients and tweaks an environmental law to try to streamline reviews to build new energy projects.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the United States could default on its debt obligations by 5 June if lawmakers do not act in time to raise the federal debt ceiling.

Democratic and Republican negotiators ironed out the final details of an agreement to suspend the federal government’s $31.4tn debt ceiling in time to promise to present the legislation to lawmakers before the Memorial Day holiday on Monday.

A failure by Congress to deal with its self-imposed debt ceiling before 5 June could trigger a default that would shake financial markets and send the US into a deep recession.

House minority leader and Democratic New York representative Hakeem Jeffries said in a letter: “I am thankful to President Biden for his leadership in averting a devastating default.”

Washington state Democratic representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the congressional progressive caucus, told CNN’s State of the Union show on Sunday morning that she did not yet know if she would vote for the deal as she needed to see “the exact legislative text”.

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She said the notion of tightening conditions for hungry families to claim food stamps was “absolutely terrible policy”.

But she warned: “The American people have to understand that we are on the brink of default” after House Republicans forced a negotiation, while further warning that Republicans want to cut “basic spending on things like healthcare, education, child care, all of the things you care about”.

South Dakota Republican congressman Dusty Johnson, who was involved in the behind-the-scenes negotiations prior to the leaders agreeing, cheered “a fantastic deal” on Sunday morning, also talking to CNN.

Johnson noted he is the leader of the mainstream Republican caucus in the House and said he believes there are Freedom Caucus members who will vote for it, though maybe not the most “colorful” ones.

Republicans control the House by 222-213, while Democrats control the Senate by 51-49. These margins mean that moderates from both sides will have to support the bill, as any compromise will almost definitely lose the support of the far-left and far-right wings of each party.

To win the speaker’s gavel, McCarthy agreed to enable any single member to call for a vote to unseat him, which could lead to his ousting if he seeks to work with Democrats. On Sunday, he said he was “not at all” worried that could happen.

Some hardline Republicans balked at McCarthy cooperating with the White House.

“If Speaker’s negotiators bring back in substance a clean debt limit increase … one so large that it even protects Biden from the issue in the presidential [election] … it’s war,” representative Dan Bishop, a member of the rightwing Freedom Caucus, tweeted.

The deal does just that, sources briefed on it said.

The deal would boost spending on the military and veterans’ care, and cap it for many discretionary domestic programs, according to sources familiar with talks. But Republicans and Democrats will need to debate, as the deal doesn’t specify them.



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