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The White House hosts a debt ceiling meeting to try to avert financial default

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Will President Biden really negotiate with Republicans over paying the nation's bills?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The president meets today with congressional leaders, and that includes House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. House Republicans have yet to agree to extend federal borrowing authority. Biden has said he won't negotiate over paying the bills that Congress has passed in the first place, but the analyst Julian Zelizer of Princeton told us the other day that his options are limited.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIAN ZELIZER: The problem is, if Republicans are willing to go through with this, that means there's a potential for a default unless the president takes extraordinary measures, like using the 14th Amendment to pay for the government's bills. If he's not willing to do that, he doesn't have as much leverage, I think, as some Democrats hope.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales is covering the story. Claudia, good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who all is attending this meeting?

GRISALES: So Biden and McCarthy will join Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries for this 4 p.m. Eastern meeting, and it's going to be the first conversation for this group, the first joint conversation, since this fight over the debt limit got underway. It's also the first since House Republicans passed a bill that they dubbed the Limit, Save, Grow Act, which would raise the debt ceiling by 1.5 trillion or until March of next year, whichever happens first. And that legislation includes significant cuts in government spending over the next several years. It claws back Biden initiatives and unspent funds from bills such as the pandemic relief aid.

And to illustrate how far apart these two sides are, Democrats have dubbed this bill the Default on America Act, calling it a ransom note to the American people. So going into this, we are not expecting a major breakthrough today on a permanent deal.

INSKEEP: OK, Default on America, DOA - kind of hard to miss the joke there.

GRISALES: Exactly. Exactly.

INSKEEP: But they're in the room. They're facing each other. They're talking. What challenges would they face in reaching some accommodation?

GRISALES: So House Republicans and their debt limit bill, that marked one of their biggest tests yet for McCarthy as speaker. It cleared the chamber by a vote of 217 to 215 - so a reminder of the tight margins there even on a partisan wish list bill. So their opening bid here in these talks marks leverage for Republicans to start these conversations. They only control one chamber in this divided government scenario. And while Biden has said the debt limit is not negotiable, he will have to see what spending cuts or other concessions his party may have an appetite for. But both face major political consequences here with Biden and McCarthy in each of their roles for the first time and Biden running for reelection for the presidency.

INSKEEP: Yeah, Biden running for reelection and McCarthy trying to keep his job with a fractious caucus that's just barely behind him.

GRISALES: Right.

INSKEEP: How does this compare to the last time this became a crisis, which was 2011?

GRISALES: Two figures from today's meeting, Biden as then vice president and McConnell in the Senate at the time, helped broker a deal as they worked with other negotiators, but they came within days of the breach, and the U.S. credit rating was downgraded for the first time. But this time it's a much more partisan scenario. McConnell and other key Senate Republicans say they're behind McCarthy on this and say Biden needs to negotiate. And McCarthy is a much less familiar opponent for negotiations for Biden on this.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I guess we should note Biden, of course, was vice president in 2011...

GRISALES: Right.

INSKEEP: ...But effectively president of the Senate and had been a longtime senator.

GRISALES: Yeah.

INSKEEP: So he's one of them. Claudia, thanks so much.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.

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