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Biden holds high stakes debt ceiling talks that include GOP leaders

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Here in Washington, the White House was the setting of a high-stakes meeting. President Joe Biden sat down with congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On the agenda, crafting a deal to raise the debt ceiling that would allow the federal government to keep paying its bills - you know, things like Social Security and the military.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

CHUCK SCHUMER: After we pass a clean debt ceiling bill and get the debt...

KEVIN MCCARTHY: The sad part here is now the Democrats need to do their job.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: MAGA Republicans in Congress are threatening to undo all this progress.

PFEIFFER: Was there any chance this group would end the bickering and make a deal?

RON ELVING, BYLINE: No one thinks this is going to be the meeting where it happens. It's just necessary to get the process started.

KELLY: A White House summit where the president has home field advantage - that's nothing new. Biden has used it before, as have his predecessors going way back.

PFEIFFER: Trump held an Oval Office meeting with then-House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in December 2018. That was shortly before Democrats took control of the House. Trump tried to hold the pair's feet to the fire on border wall funding.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: If we don't have border security, we'll shut down the government. This country...

KELLY: Now, these meetings are not always about money, but they often are. And across decades, administrations and Congresses, they all seem to use the same stagecraft.

ELVING: Well, we've all seen the kabuki theater of these things before. The leaders of Congress arrive at the White House. There's a gaggle of media people, cameras and microphones, maybe some shouted questions in the room, maybe some smiles, a little show of confidence. And then the meeting begins.

PFEIFFER: The president and the leaders then talk in private and come back out to announce what has been accomplished or not. But if it's just political theater, what's the point? Is there a larger endgame at work?

ELVING: Yes, and it entails a far larger cast than just these four congressional leaders and President Biden. Many people who are working for them are going to be working on this more or less around the clock for the next several weeks.

KELLY: So how does what happened at the meeting tonight set up that round-the-clock work over these next several weeks? To hear more about that, let's bring in NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. She is at the Capitol. Hey there.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: Hey there. So the president has been insisting Congress needs to pass a clean bill to lift the debt ceiling - that they're - the speaker, meanwhile, says any bill has to include spending cuts. Did any middle ground emerge tonight?

WALSH: No. Both sides remain really dug in and repeated their messages. The president came out after the meeting and said the session was productive, but he said the speaker was, quote, "a little over the top." The president was asked whether he would consider invoking the 14th Amendment to the Constitution so the U.S. could keep paying its bills, and he admitted he was considering it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: The question - I have been considering the 14th Amendment. And a man I have enormous respect for, Larry Tribe, who advised me for a long time, thinks that it would be legitimate. But the problem is, it would have to be litigated. And in the meantime, without an extension, it would still end up in the same place.

WALSH: The speaker told reporters that if the president was considering the 14th Amendment, it meant he was a failure at reaching across the aisle, and the speaker said not much changed after the meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCARTHY: Everybody in this meeting reiterated the positions they were at. I didn't see any new movement.

WALSH: But McCarthy did say he and other top leaders would meet again with the President on Friday.

KELLY: And what are Democrats saying?

WALSH: They repeated that the House bill just doesn't have any chance in the Senate. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the speaker was pressed during the meeting to commit that there would be no default.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHUMER: We explicitly asked Speaker McCarthy - would he take default off the table? He refused.

KELLY: I guess the problem here is that economists say default would be really bad, Deirdre.

WALSH: Exactly.

KELLY: Nobody's saying they want it. So is either side signaling what might make them move?

WALSH: Not yet. But I think one tidbit of progress out of the meeting is that there is now a process for the staffs of both sides to meet during the week and prep for that other meeting that they scheduled for Friday. In terms of those opening positions that they kept repeating, the reality is the House Republican bill is dead on arrival in the Senate. Democrats keep calling it the Default on America Act. But also, what the president wants and top Hill Democrats want - a bill just to raise the debt limit, with nothing else attached to it - cannot pass the House or the Senate. The speaker has argued repeatedly that the last time there was divided government in a debate over this issue in 2011 and Biden was the vice president...

KELLY: Yeah.

WALSH: ...There was a bipartisan deal with spending reforms attached to the - to increase the debt limit. It's worth noting that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was a key player in that negotiation. Here's what he said coming out of tonight's meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: The solution to this problem lies with two people - the president of the United States, who can sign a bill and deliver the members of his party to vote for it, and the speaker of the House.

KELLY: Do we know, Deirdre, what might be happening behind the scenes? I'm imagining both sides here would be trying to affect the outcome in the negotiating room by maneuvering outside the negotiating room.

WALSH: Right. There's definitely an inside and outside gain. We do know that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other top Biden economic advisers are reaching out to the business community and CEOs to try to urge them to talk more about what a default could mean as a way to increase pressure on the speaker and other Republicans. Even before this meeting, the president's scheduled a trip to visit Hudson Valley, N.Y., which is the district of a House Republican, Mike Lawler. That's a swing district. Lawler is going to attend that event on Wednesday. We also know that Republicans, for their part, are targeting Democrats with their message about the need to cut spending. So there's a lot of political messaging going on around these tense negotiations.

KELLY: NPR's Deirdre Walsh at the Capitol. Thanks.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deirdre Walsh
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.