Mar 3, 2023, 7:12am EST

The debt ceiling fight settles in for a long stalemate

Speaker Kevin McCarthy
REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

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The News

The clash over the debt limit has entered its own version of the Phony War — the early lull before major fighting commenced in Europe at the start of World War II.

Republicans and Democrats are both dug in, satisfied for now to wait the other side out while lobbing the occasional rhetorical grenades from their respective foxholes.

President Joe Biden met with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill on Thursday and only lightly touched on the debt ceiling without offering much in specifics, per Democratic senators in the room.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. said there was “some conversation” about the borrowing limit. “He wants the Republicans to put their budget out,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va.

There haven’t been any recent signs of progress between Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on a deal either since they met at the White House last month. “He hasn’t followed up from our last meeting, even though he said he would,” the California Republican told CNN on Wednesday.

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Joseph’s view

Don’t expect high-level discussions over debt ceiling legislation to break out any time soon.

Reauthorizing the US’s ability to borrow is at the top of Congress’s agenda this year. But at the moment Biden is showing no inclination to back down from his demand that Republicans pass a “clean” debt ceiling hike without conditions. Democrats are in no mood to reward the GOP for rediscovering an appetite for austerity as soon as Republicans lose the White House.

Rather than negotiate, he has challenged the GOP to first show they can assemble a budget capable of netting 218 votes in the House, an enormous task for McCarthy. And the speaker, for his part, has said he’s a hard no on a clean hike.

Congress typically doesn’t check an item off its to-do list without the pressure of a deadline and it’s still not clear when the X-date for default lands on the calendar. Like many college students, lawmakers have a tendency to procrastinate — and only scramble to turn in their assignments at the very last minute.

“There’s just not much to talk about until the X-date is close enough to budge people from their current postures and Republicans demonstrate what they can produce the votes for,” Liam Donovan, a former Republican aide, told Semafor. “Until then, Biden and Democrats are content to wait.”


Brian Riedl, a conservative budget expert in touch with Congressional Republicans, was blunter: “Both sides are gonna play chicken and see who blinks first.”

Congressional Budget Office Director Philip Swagel recently said at a Bipartisan Policy Center event that the government’s number crunchers will develop a clearer understanding of the X-date sometime in May, due to incoming payments from tax season. The CBO recently projected that the US likely has enough cash on hand to pay its bills until it defaults “sometime between July and September.”

In other words, maybe we’ll see some real combat by the summer.

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Room for Disagreement

Manchin has been publicly pressuring Democrats to stop dawdling and cut an actual spending deal with Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer offered his response during a Thursday CNN interview: “Joe my dear friend I love you, but there’s nothing to negotiate with,” he said.

Morgan Chalfant contributed to this report