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Democrats Fear Biden Is Folding Too Easily in Debt Limit Talks

President Biden Delivers State Of The Union Address
President Biden Delivers State Of The Union Address

President Joe Biden shakes hands with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy before he delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, on February 7, 2023 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Credit - Jacquelyn Martin-Pool—Getty Images

In late December 2012, Republicans controlled the House and refused to raise the debt limit without spending cuts. Sound familiar? With the country days away from defaulting, a list of suggested concessions from the Obama White House arrived in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office. The Nevada Democrat threw the papers in his fireplace and told the top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, that the Democrats weren’t budging.

With Reid willing to let the Republicans drive the country to default, McConnell found himself a more risk-averse negotiating partner. He called Joe Biden, then President Obama’s vice president, and Biden gave McConnell something he wanted: a concession that pushed the whole process back to two months later. Reid was livid.

It was not the only time Democrats on Capitol Hill felt like Biden had negotiated away their leverage. Biden’s love of compromise solutions is a pattern that goes back to his decades in the Senate, says Jim Manley, a former senior communications adviser to Reid and the Senate Democratic Caucus. “He understands how radical the Republican Party has become,” says Manley. “The bad news is his heart is still as a senator who wants to sit down and legislate.”

Now, days away from the country hitting a congressionally-determined debt limit around June 1, anxiety is growing in some Democratic circles that Biden is falling into his old placating ways, ultimately handing Republicans too much for raising an arbitrary ceiling to pay bills on spending already approved by Congress.

“I worry about everything,” Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, told TIME when asked if he’s worried that Biden will too easily cave to Republican demands. “I have no reason to believe the Administration is going to go along with any of this. But I want to make sure that there’s meaningful pushback here.”

McGovern has been one of the most outspoken advocates for Biden to resist any compromise with Republicans on the debt ceiling, and instead raise it on his own by invoking an untested legal strategy that argues that it would be unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment for the U.S. to fail to make its debt payments. “This is not a negotiation, this is a ransom note,” McGovern said of Republicans. “But whatever, that’s up to [Biden].”

Biden had already given House Speaker Kevin McCarthy a major concession: coming to the table at all. He’d said for months that he wasn’t going to let Republicans use their refusal to pay the country’s debt become a reason for such talks. But that’s exactly the position he has now found himself in, with less than two weeks before the country is expected to default.

Biden rattled some fellow Democrats last week when he told reporters, minutes before flying to Japan, that he might accept Republican demands for new work requirements on government assistance programs. “I voted years ago for the work requirements that exist, but it’s possible there could be a few others but not anything of any consequence,” Biden said.

Republicans also want federal spending cut below last year’s levels and relaxed permit requirements for energy projects. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the GOP proposal that passed the House in April would lead to 600,000 Americans losing health insurance and 275,000 Americans each month losing food subsidies.

Biden is pressing Republicans to think beyond cuts in reducing federal deficits, including changing the way that carried interest is taxed and including projected savings to federal programs from new guidance that allows Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, said a person familiar with the negotiations.

“The President should make it clear that it’s patriotic to pay our debts,” Rep. Ro Khanna of California, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tells TIME. “We can talk about reducing the deficit, but we must pay our bills first. President Biden is constitutionally obligated to do so.”

While a recent CNN poll found that 60% of Americans say Congress should only raise the nation’s debt ceiling if it also cuts spending, Biden is facing growing pressure from the left to not cave—or cut a deal at all. They argue making any concessions at all will only encourage more of the kind of brinkmanship the parties are currently locked in.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat and chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, expressed confidence in Biden, but argues that the White House will need progressive votes to pass any debt limit deal. “That means no to work requirements, no to big spending cuts and no to bad permitting reform,” she tells TIME.

Jayapal wants Biden to stick to the promises he made on the campaign trail to reduce costs for working Americans. “We didn’t vote for the Joe Biden of 1996 or 1986. We voted for the Joe Biden of 2020,” Jayapal says, adding, “This is not a time, when hunger is at its all-time high, to institute burdensome work requirements.”

Further frustrating many liberals amid the current standoff is that they threw away the chance to avoid it. After the elections last year, while Democrats still controlled both chambers of Congress, they discussed either raising the debt ceiling by a massive amount or eliminating it altogether before Republicans took control of the House. Senators Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent, reportedly blocked those efforts. As the negotiations with Republicans have dragged on, more Democrats in the Capitol have expressed regret for not fighting harder for that strategy last year. One person close to Biden dismissed such ruminations as “magical thinking,” particularly since the votes were never there.

Asked what should happen if the government runs out of money in early June and Republicans still haven’t budged, McGovern said that Democrats have filed a procedural move known as a “discharge petition” that would allow a majority of lawmakers in the House to overrule the Republican leadership and call a vote.

But he acknowledged that finding enough Republicans to deploy such a strategy would be difficult.