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Debt Talks Are Frozen as House Republicans Splinter Over a Fiscal Plan

The struggles among Republicans to put forth a budget reflect the perilous path ahead for lawmakers who must broker a debt deal by the summer to avert a catastrophic default.

Two people stand close to each other with the Capitol Dome near them.
House Republicans have begun to back away from some of their own budget objectives.Credit...Shuran Huang for The New York Times

Catie Edmondson

March 29, 2023, 7:26 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — House Republicans who have said they will not vote to raise the national debt limit without deep spending cuts are backing away from their promise to balance the budget and struggling to unite their fractious majority behind a fiscal plan, paralyzing progress on talks to avert a catastrophic default as soon as this summer.

Determined to use the coming confrontation over the national debt to extract sweeping spending concessions from Democrats, House G.O.P. leaders announced a series of lofty goals earlier this year — driven in large part by the demands of the hard-right faction of their party. They include balancing the federal budget in 10 years and freezing spending at prepandemic levels, all without touching Social Security, Medicare or military funding.

But even as they continue to deride President Biden’s $6.8 trillion budget proposal, released this month, House Republicans have begun to inch away from their own stated objectives, plagued by divisions that have prevented them from agreeing on a plan of their own that can draw enough support to pass with their slim majority.

The pledge to balance the nation’s budget has gone by the wayside, initially softened to a commitment to put the nation “on a path toward” a balanced budget and now seemingly scrapped altogether. The timetable for when Republicans say they will put out a budget blueprint has continued to slip. And after the Budget Committee chairman told reporters that the party was finalizing a list of specific cuts to bring to negotiations with Mr. Biden, Speaker Kevin McCarthy threw cold water on the idea, saying, “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

The internal back-and-forth has prevented Republicans from reaching a consensus on spending cuts, which the party has said must be included in any measure to raise the debt limit, currently expected to be breached as early as July. That is an early indication of the perilous path ahead for lawmakers who must broker a deal to avert a default that could trigger a global economic crisis.

“I don’t see how we get there,” Representative Patrick T. McHenry, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, said of raising the debt ceiling. “And this is a marked change from where I’ve been. I don’t even see a path.”

Mr. McHenry, a key ally of Mr. McCarthy, added in remarks at an event hosted by Punchbowl News, “I’ve never been more pessimistic about where we stand with the debt ceiling, and we’ve been in some bad situations before.”

President Biden proposed a $6.8 trillion budget that sought to increase spending on the military and social programs while also reducing future budget deficits.

In the absence of a budget plan that Republicans will swallow, or even make public, House leaders have sought to buy themselves more time, and instead tried to blame Democrats for delaying debt limit negotiations.

Mr. McCarthy sent a letter to Mr. Biden on Tuesday accusing the White House of being “completely missing in action on any meaningful follow-up” since their last meeting, in February, to discuss the looming deadline.

Detailing the most extensive list yet of categories of spending cuts his party is demanding, Mr. McCarthy made no reference to balancing the budget in 10 years, a tacit acknowledgment that his conference has all but abandoned that benchmark. He instead focused on freezing spending levels to “pre-inflationary levels,” strengthening work requirements for recipients of federal assistance programs and reclaiming unspent coronavirus emergency funds approved by Congress.

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Speaker Kevin McCarthy, right, sent President Biden a letter regarding the debt ceiling on Tuesday.Credit...Al Drago for The New York Times

“If the president would have a meeting, I would have all the $4 trillion sitting there and provided to you,” Mr. McCarthy said on CNBC, when asked to detail his plan for tackling the debt.

Mr. Biden responded on Tuesday night with his own letter, replying that he was not interested in meeting until he could see House Republicans’ “full set of proposals” and requesting that Mr. McCarthy present them before the end of the week, a deadline that the conference almost certainly will not meet.


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“I look forward to your response, to eliminating the specter of default and to your budget,” Mr. Biden wrote.

The problem for House Republican leaders is that the mountain of spending objectives demanded by their rank and file, which they have embraced, are practically impossible to enact all at once.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported this month that if House Republicans did not cut Social Security, Medicare, or defense and veterans’ spending while also renewing the tax cuts passed during the Trump administration, they would not be able to balance the budget even if they eliminated the rest of the budget entirely.

Representative Jodey C. Arrington, Republican of Texas and the Budget Committee chairman, told reporters on Wednesday evening that “we have a goal to balance” the budget “in 10 years, but whatever the path is to balance, we’ve got to get 218” votes to pass it. “I’m a realist.”

Both Mr. Biden’s budget and House Republicans’ budget, he said, “will have plenty of time to be assessed and scrutinized.”

But that has not stopped Democrats from attacking the plan in the interim.

“Republicans believe we can cut our way to a balanced budget,” said Representative Brendan F. Boyle of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee. “That is not only false; it’s dangerous.”

House majorities have often shied away from presenting budget resolutions — which are planning documents without the force of law — for fear of putting their most politically vulnerable lawmakers on the hook for tough votes. Any budget resolution put forward this year by Republican leaders featuring deep spending cuts threatens to endanger their critical bloc of swing-district lawmakers.

“Why do we have to have a budget out to sit down and talk about the debt ceiling?” Mr. McCarthy asked earlier this month at the House Republican retreat in Orlando.

That has left top Republicans focused on paring back spending levels to prepandemic levels.

“I know some Democrats want to talk about draconian cuts,” said Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, a McCarthy ally, adding that he did not think that description applied to last year’s spending levels. “The Democrats didn’t think they were draconian when they were voting for those laws.”

At the same time, lawmakers in the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus have been unabashed about laying out the programs they believe the House Republican Conference should slash. They have also called for changes that would upend the federal budget process, such as starting at a baseline of zero spending and effectively re-evaluating all federal programs to determine whether they should be funded and at what levels.

“We should be doing a line-item budget,” said Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona. “We should be doing a zero-based budget. That would allow us to make reductions specifically where they need to go.”

The one piece of legislation designed to address the debt crisis that Republicans have been able to advance is a bill passed by the Budget Committee that would “prioritize” payments on U.S. Treasury bonds if the nation could no longer borrow funds to cover all its expenses. That legislation passed on a party-line vote last month, after Democrats noted that the Biden administration had ruled out the idea as practically untenable.

Others have floated the idea of a short-term debt ceiling hike, though it is unclear whether hard-right Republicans, more than a dozen of whom have never voted to raise the debt limit, would back that approach. Mr. McHenry said earlier this week that he believed Republicans did not have the votes to pass a stand-alone bill allowing the United States to borrow more money.

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