Inside the debt ceiling negotiations on Capitol Hill

On Capitol Hill, the awkward talks to avoid defaulting on government debt this week have unfolded over middle-of-the-night video calls, marathon meetings in an opulent conference room and at least a jaunt. cycling early in the morning.

At the White House, evening tour groups were diverted from the West Wing because President Biden was in the Oval Office with his chief of staff and other advisers, who needed his quick comments.

But not all talks have so far led to an agreement to raise the country’s debt ceiling, raising fears of a potentially catastrophic default that could upend financial markets, drive up interest rates and end in a deterioration in the nation’s credit.

Negotiators got a bit of a break on Friday afternoon when Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said the United States could run out of money to pay its bills on time by June 5 – a slight extension from the previous June 1 deadline.

But a week of frantic and “productive” meetings has given those trapped in the negotiating room the distinct feeling that days and nights are jostling.

“We’re here, night after night after night,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, a top aide to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

“Everyone wants a detail on this,” Mr McHenry said, as a crowd of reporters demanded to know whether the country would descend into economic calamity or not. “Everyone wants a tweet. I want a deal that changes the trajectory of the country.

As he spoke, the normally gregarious congressman telegraphed his fatigue in the smallest of ways: the bow tie he wears every day was missing.

Mr McCarthy, who went for a bike ride on Friday morning with one of his top negotiators, Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, weighed in with the obvious: “We need to make more progress now.”

Although Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy have known each other for years and speak (mostly) respectfully in public, their relationship so far has not been about finding courtesy but about obtaining concessions.

“You’ve got two non-drinking Irishmen,” Mr McHenry joked earlier in the week. “It’s a different setup from Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan,” a reference to President Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., a Democrat, and Republican President, who also shared Irish heritage and were known to share a beer.

Mr Biden’s aides have been working around the clock since the talks abruptly collapsed a week ago, leading to a Republican-mandated ‘pause’ on the talks that caught team members by surprise President’s negotiation. From Japan, Mr Biden demanded frequent updates and ended a scheduled dinner early to receive a briefing on the talks. On the last day of his trip, Mr. Biden’s advisers back in Washington woke up at 4:30 a.m. to brief him via video.

Since then, negotiators from both sides have met several times in a conference room on the side of the Capitol Chamber, under a mural painted by artist Constantino Brumidi which depicts “a retired Roman general recalled to defend his city, a classic event often seen”. as a parallel to the life of George Washington,” according to the Capitol Architect’s website.

The descriptions of the meetings themselves weren’t as colorful. Mr McHenry expressed his dismay this week at all the people claiming to know what was going on.

“Everyone wants to have guesses or want to have interested reads on what we’re talking about, but there are only a few of us in the room,” he said.

Mr. Biden’s negotiating team was led by Shalanda D. Young, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Steve Ricchetti, the president’s adviser, who served as Mr. Biden’s liaison with Capitol Hill since his days as vice president. president. Mr. Ricchetti has been back and forth along Pennsylvania Avenue all week, moving between meetings at the White House and meetings with Republicans, according to a person familiar with his schedule.

Throughout the negotiations, Mr. Ricchetti was the only member of the team empowered to make strategic decisions on behalf of Mr. Biden, according to two people familiar with the talks. (He is also one of the few people authorized to answer the president’s phone on Mr. Biden’s behalf when they are together.)

The group also includes Louisa Terrell, the director of legislative affairs. Both she and Ms. Young have deep connections on Capitol Hill; According to several former administration officials, Ms. Young was a longtime staffer on the House Appropriations Committee and earned the respect of both Republicans and Democrats. Ms. Terrell’s experience on Capitol Hill dates back to Mr. Biden’s Senate office.

According to several people involved, their experience will be key in continuing to sell members on any eventual deal. When Capitol Hill negotiators traveled to the White House midweek, they met in a conference room near Ms. Young’s office suite in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

At the White House, Mr. Biden receives daily updates from Jeffrey D. Zients, his chief of staff. Mr. Zients has not been as involved in the external negotiations, people familiar say, but he leads the strategy guiding those meetings from the White House. He is in regular contact with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Majority Leader, and Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the top Democrat in the House. (Mr. Schumer said in a statement that the president’s negotiators are “available when we have questions.”)

Mr. Biden also works closely with Bruce Reed, a senior political adviser who was Mr. Biden’s chief of staff during the debt ceiling talks in 2011 and 2013, and Lael Brainard, his top economic adviser.

Mr. Biden, who does not believe in negotiating in public – as he has said many times since becoming president – ​​remained silent, except to say on Thursday that he and Mr. McCarthy have “a very different view of who should bear the burden of extra efforts to get our finances in order.

So on Capitol Hill, the negotiators have acquired something of a celebrity status among reporters, with dozens of reporters scrambling to follow them and latch on to their every word for insight into the talks.

Non-journalists were less thrilled: As a crowd of reporters chased Mr. Graves from the Capitol on Friday afternoon, huddling together to be within earshot, one onlooker said, “I don’t even know not who it is.

Mr. McCarthy began speaking to the media several times a day, often repeating the same talking points, but never missing an opportunity to make his views known to the public. (At least twice, he walked in the middle of a reporter’s live TV appearance, adopted a broad smile, and started talking to people watching at home.)

Mr. Graves, a low-profile Republican from Louisiana, attempted to meet with members of the women’s national basketball championship team at Louisiana State University on Thursday as reporters followed him in search of any information: Didn’t you see the speaker? ” he told a group of reporters at one point, trying to turn them away from him.

Despite all the interest, the House ended its votes for the week on Thursday morning, with most lawmakers happy to leave Washington. Some Democrats stayed to shame fellow Republicans for leaving town with an impending economic calamity.

“America may be running out of ability to pay our bills and the extreme MAGA Republicans have chosen to leave town before sunset,” Mr. Jeffries said from the House floor.

Soon most of the Democrats were also gone. The country could default on its debt in just over a week. But first there was Memorial Day weekend.


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