May 15, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Biden risks “huge backlash” from left in debt ceiling talks

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Progressives lawmakers are warning President Biden he could face blowback from the left if he cedes ground to Republicans in debt ceiling negotiations.

Why it matters: This new pressure from the left complicates the White House's balancing act.

  • Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Monday she still estimates the U.S. could stop being able to pay off its debt as soon as June 1.

What they're saying: Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Axios it’s “really important that we don’t give ground” on several areas, including welfare work requirements and energy permitting reform.

  • "We have made it clear ... that if they give on these core Democratic values, there will be a huge backlash," she said, adding that there will be "backlash at the polling booth" with progressives not turning out.
  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said the White House can "expect pushback on nearly any significant concession. This is not an appropriate vehicle ... I don't think we should normalize such destructive tactics."
  • "I'm very, very concerned," said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who said he is "leaning towards not optimistic in terms of what we're going to give up."

Between the lines: The progressive lawmakers shared concerns that Biden risks emboldening Republicans to make future demands if he abandons his refusal to sign anything other than a clean debt ceiling increase.

  • “It’s profoundly destructive and it also threatens to weaken the president," Ocasio-Cortez said.
  • "It makes us look weak and like we don't know what we're doing," said Bowman.

State of play: Several parts of the House GOP bill – work requirements, energy permitting reform, COVID aid clawbacks and discretionary spending caps – are on the table in staff-level talks that have been going on since last week, according to a congressional leadership source.

  • Some Republicans, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), lambasted the White House publicly on Monday, alleging slow progress and a refusal to budge on the demand for a clean debt ceiling increase.
  • But, privately, one House Republican told Axios the conversations have been "constructive" and that "we'll know ... very soon if they've produced" a workable deal.
  • President Biden is scheduled to meet with congressional leaders on Tuesday.

A common theme emerged in interviews with more than a half dozen House progressives: Trying to use the 14th Amendment or a discharge petition as work-arounds to force a clean debt ceiling increase.

  • "I think the president may need to deal with it by just invoking the 14th Amendment and then seeing where it goes," said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), acknowledging it could get wrapped up in the courts.
  • Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a senior Budget Committee member, pointed to both options as "an avenue [to raising the debt ceiling], depending on how stubborn [Republicans] actually get."

What we're watching: Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a constitutional law professor, is slated to make the case for using the 14th Amendment at the Progressive Caucus meeting on Tuesday.

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