May 2, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Yellen breaks the debt ceiling ice

Janet Yellen

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The months-long silence between President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is reaching an abrupt end thanks to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

Why it matters: Yellen's urgent deadline on the debt ceiling gives the White House and Congress as little as a month to avert a catastrophic default, spurring Biden to call an emergency meeting with congressional heads.

Reality check: The timeline is more urgent than it looks, and a vast chasm remains between the two parties.

  • Biden plans to push a clean debt ceiling increase at the planned May 9 meeting with congressional leadership despite Republicans ruling it out.
  • The Senate is only in session for 14 days before June 1, while the House is in for 12 days.

What they're saying: Senate Democrats interviewed by Axios on Monday stood firm in their opposition to tying the debt ceiling to budget cuts despite the newly truncated timeline.

  • Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), one of three Trump-state Democrats in the Senate, told reporters he is supportive of Biden negotiating deficit reduction with McCarthy, "but not on the debt ceiling."
  • "The only thing scarier than not negotiating with [Republicans] is negotiating with them," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), because "they will never, ever stop holding ... the American economy hostage."

The other side: Republicans celebrated Biden's decision to come to the table, but shut down the idea of a clean debt ceiling increase with seemingly no wiggle room.

  • "Won't pass the House, won't pass the Senate," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) leadership team.
  • Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) signaled he would only be willing to do that for a "very short term" extension – 30 days or less, he specified – to give negotiators enough time to reach a deal.

The bottom line: Few other senators aside from Cramer were willing to even entertain the idea of a short-term increase or suspension.

  • "If everybody starts thinking we can get an extension, then the crisis won't happen until the end of that extension," said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), "That's just the way it works up here."
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