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As debt ceiling talks stall, Speaker McCarthy says GOP may move its own bill

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy speaks to members of the press after the vote for the Lower Energy Costs Act at the U.S. Capitol on March 30.
Alex Wong
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Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy speaks to members of the press after the vote for the Lower Energy Costs Act at the U.S. Capitol on March 30.

With negotiations over avoiding a default on the country's credit limit stalled, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters Thursday that the GOP-led House may move its own bill.

"If the president doesn't act, we will," McCarthy said, indicating he's nearing agreement among his members on a plan. He said the House could vote on legislation that is modeled on a letter he sent earlier in the week to Biden that proposed lowered spending levels and floated adding several policy proposals to a package to increase the debt ceiling.

"I don't know what more I can do," McCarthy said, again urging the president to agree to another meeting to discuss a deal. He then appeared to take a jab at the 80-year-old president's age, saying, "I would bring the lunch to the White House, I would make it soft food if that's what he wants."

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen informed Congress the country reached its borrowing limit in January, but said the department could use "extraordinary measures" to continue paying the nation's bills until those were exhausted, likely sometime this summer.

When McCarthy was elected speaker in January after 15 ballots of voting on the House floor, one demand he agreed to in order to get support from a bloc of conservatives was not to allow any House vote to raise the debt ceiling without attaching spending cuts. Democrats railed on this approach, saying it amounted to "hostage taking" and threatens a historic default that would roil financial markets.

The speaker and the president met on Feb. 1 and both agreed the discussion was productive, but talks have been essentially frozen since that session, with Biden insisting the speaker outline what spending cuts he wants and the speaker saying the president's refusal to meet again could negatively impact the economy.

New push to add policy proposals to bipartisan deal

This week McCarthy appeared to shift his focus from emphasizing federal spending cuts that Democrats have dismissed and instead suggesting several policy changes that could give him some sort of political win to hold up in the talks if one or more were accepted in some form.

McCarthy has insisted that a so-called "clean" bill to increase the debt ceiling can't pass the House. In his Tuesday letter to Biden, he argued, "you are on the clock" and that it was time for another sit-down meeting.

McCarthy's letter included a familiar push to reduce nondefense spending, but it also suggested three other ideas: returning unspent COVID relief funds to the Treasury, adding work requirements for some on federal assistance programs and attaching measures to lower energy costs, such as permitting reforms for new energy projects.

In a letter back to McCarthy, the president pressed the speaker to release a GOP budget, noting he released his own — and suggested the two could sit down after the two-week spring congressional recess, once that budget is released.

When asked Tuesday about a meeting with the speaker in the absence of a Republican budget blueprint, the president said, "Well, I don't know what we're going to meet on."

He added: "The deal was, we'd each put down our budget."

Schumer: 'Speaker McCarthy just says let's meet. But what are they going to do, discuss the weather?'

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., continued to press House Republicans to agree to a clean extension of the debt limit, noting a similar measure was approved three times under then-President Donald Trump. He said it's time for the GOP to put detailed plans on the table before another negotiating session, saying, "you can't sit down and discuss something if you don't have a plan. Speaker McCarthy just says let's meet. But what are they going to do, discuss the weather?"

Rep Kevin Hern, R-Okla., who chairs the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a large group of House conservatives, told reporters he could support a bill that included the proposals the speaker outlined, saying those policy ideas emanated from the RSC's own proposal.

He said House Republicans moving their own bill would be a "response to what the president said — 'show me what you've got' — so if you put a bill out there and you get 218 votes, then you're showing him."

Hern said the timeline for when a deal needs to be finalized could hinge on the Treasury Department's tax receipts in mid-April and after that, efforts to reach a deal could accelerate.

The Oklahoma Republican said he thought adding work requirements that would target those adults receiving federal assistance between 18-49 years old without dependents or disabilities would help address labor shortages employers cite as a reason for the lagging economy.

One GOP proposal that may have bipartisan support is included in the the House Republicans' energy package, which passed largely along party lines on Thursday. It includes a provision to accelerate permitting of new energy projects. Some Democrats, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, support reforms to the current process.

The speaker and other GOP leaders stressed this week they want to separate any discussion of the budget from the debt limit talks. Republicans vowed in their campaign to retake the majority that they would pass a budget that would balance within 10 years, but several GOP lawmakers admit that process will take more time — and with a 5-seat majority, some admit it will be a major task to get one through the House.

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., said he hoped the GOP budget process would wrap up "hopefully at the end of September" and in terms of the debt limit and the budget "we look at them as two separate conversations."

NPR's Barbara Sprunt contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.