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McConnell says McCarthy should take the lead on negotiating the debt ceiling standoff

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addressed the looming debt limit problem during a press conference on January 24.
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell addressed the looming debt limit problem during a press conference on January 24.

Updated January 24, 2023 at 8:06 PM ET

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said crafting a solution to avoid a catastrophic debt default this summer should originate in the Republican-controlled House, with Speaker Kevin McCarthy taking point on negotiations with the White House.

"I can't imagine any debt ceiling provision passed out of the Senate with 60 votes could actually pass this particular House," McConnell told reporters Tuesday. "I think the final solution to this particular episode lies between Speaker McCarthy and the president."

The U.S. hit the debt limit — currently $31.4 trillion — last week, catapulting Washington into a familiar, high-stakes political fight with potentially devastating economic consequences.

The Treasury Department has employed "extraordinary measures" to cover the debt for several months, a band-aid that will be torn off by June. If Congress fails to raise or suspend the debt limit before then, the federal government won't be able to pay its obligations, like Social Security and Medicare. It will also lead to an unprecedented debt default, the economic consequences of which would ripple worldwide.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday night, McCarthy said he wants to find common ground with Joe Biden to establish a "responsible debt ceiling." The speaker said he wants to eliminate wasteful government spending, however, Biden has maintained that raising the debt ceiling to avoid defaulting is not up for debate.

McCarthy called the president's unwillingness to negotiate "irresponsible."

"I want to look the president in the eye and tell me there's not $1 of wasteful spending and government," McCarthy said. "Who believes that? The American public doesn't believe that. Our whole government is designed to have compromise."

How does the debt ceiling fight affect me?

Historically, a debt limit breach has been avoided by simply raising the debt limit, something that's been done 78 times since 1960. As NPR's Ron Elving reports, the accumulation of debt and subsequent raising of the debt limit has been done by both Republican and Democratic administrations. The ceiling was last raised by $2.5 trillion in December 2021.

But this time around, some House Republicans, who narrowly control the lower chamber, want to tie debt ceiling talks to negotiations on spending cuts. McConnell told reporters he thinks it's "entirely reasonable" for the House to "put spending reductions on the table."

Democrats have cried foul, claiming House Republicans are flirting with a debt default to try to extract budget cuts. Top Democratic leaders also note there were bipartisan votes to lift the debt ceiling when former President Donald Trump was in office.

"This is a manufactured and unnecessary crisis that is going to damage our economy and jobs well before the default," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told reporters Monday. "I think it really holds Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid hostage."

McCarthy, who made handshake deals on cutting spending to Republican holdouts in his protracted fight for the speaker's gavel, now faces a difficult balancing act: making good on pledges to cut spending at every turn while passing a bill to lift the debt ceiling.

"We've got to change the way we are spending money wastefully in this country, and we're going to make sure that happens," McCarthy previously told reporters, adding: "We don't want to put any fiscal problems through our economy, and we won't."

Lawmakers issued calls to negotiate with the White House

Many Senate Republicans say that now that Republicans control the House, it's incumbent on the White House to begin talks with McCarthy.

"Ultimately, I think it's going to have to be negotiated by the House and the White House," Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn told reporters. Asked if he was on the same page as House Republicans, Cornyn replied, "I don't know what page they're on."

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has also called on the White House to come to the negotiating table.

"I think you have to sit down and talk to everybody and find out if there's an objection and find out where it is," he told reporters Monday. "We all know that we're going to pass the debt ceiling, we're not going to let the country default."

Manchin added: "We should sit down and realize we've got a debt that is absolutely unsustainable — [but] you do not have to scare or threaten anybody about how they're going to lose their benefits. Social Security and Medicare should be absolutely protected immediately. That should be off the table completely, and we should start looking at all different areas that we have before we continue down this path."

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told reporters the White House "needs to engage" and said cutting any benefits to current retirees or near-retirees is "off the table." He added that longer-term debate about reforming mandatory spending on Social Security and Medicare should be explored. He has sponsored a bill with Manchin that he said could be part of that broader discussion.

Romney said it was critical to work now on a deal to address the debt limit because it's not an abstract issue; concerns over the economic fallout could impact people with mortgages, car loans and retirees worried about the impact on Social Security payments.

"We can't have people worried about whether they are going to get paid," Romney stressed to reporters.

When asked whether mandatory spending for the social safety net should be on the table, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the no. 2 Senate GOP leader, told reporters he didn't think the conversation would center on those programs.

"I think the issue is are we going to do anything to inform our spending in a way that makes those programs more sustainable for the future. And as [McConnell] pointed out, I think there's always an opportunity when something like this comes up, to have a conversation which sometimes can lead to an outcome, which happened in 2011 with the Budget Control Act."

Thune also said he thought any deal that could pass the House and get President Biden's signature was likely to garner the 60 votes needed to avoid a Republican filibuster.

The White House has said Biden wants to meet with McCarthy, but no date has yet been set.

NPR's Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.