Weeks to avoid default, and everything’s riding on 4 people
Kyrsten Sinema, who’s convened her share of bipartisan dealmaking groups, has stayed pretty quiet on the debt limit standoff. Until now.
The Arizona Independent on Wednesday cheered a new quartet who’s leading negotiations for President Joe Biden and the Big Four congressional leaders. That group now consists of White House counselor Steve Ricchetti, budget chief Shalanda Young, legislative affairs chief Louisa Terrell and McCarthy emissary Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.).
And Sinema, a longtime friend of the speaker, predicted eventual success: “I think we’re gonna get there.”
“Choosing Steve Ricchetti and Shalanda Young to lead these negotiations was the best move the Biden administration could have done,” Sinema said in an interview. “It would have been good if it happened sooner, but the fact that it happened yesterday is really good. And there is enough time for them to get to an agreement, but it couldn’t happen with all the others in the room.”
Sinema wasn’t the only one feeling more encouraged. While Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), a close ally of McCarthy, said those negotiations should have started at least a month ago, the newly appointed people handling the toughest gig in D.C. gave him some hope.
“You wanna get a deal done? Having [Young] and Garret Graves in a room is probably the best way to do it,” he said.
The shifting sentiment reflected some welcome optimism on Capitol Hill, as Washington approaches the two-week mark before the U.S. could fumble into a full-on economic disaster. Though both sides remain far apart, lawmakers from both parties acknowledged that if anyone can cut a deal in time, it’s the group of advisers now at the table.
Ricchetti and Terrell are renowned for having the full confidence of the president, allowing them to actually clinch a deal on Biden’s behalf. Then there’s Young, a respected budget guru who’s won trust from both sides in her handling of epic Hill spending battles like the border wall. And Graves is McCarthy’s shadow whip, a behind-the-scenes policy wonk who’s described by the speaker’s staff as a “bonus chief of staff.” They’ve leapt quickly into talks, meeting Tuesday night and again Wednesday morning.
Both Biden and McCarthy have been upbeat about reaching a default-avoiding deal as soon as this week that involves several thorny political issues — like spending caps, new work requirements for aid and energy permitting reform — but several lawmakers remain skeptical.
In fact, a growing number of progressives say Biden needs to more seriously entertain invoking the 14th Amendment as leverage against McCarthy, to show the president has an escape hatch. That would almost certainly provoke legal challenges, but the left thinks it would help Biden nonetheless.
Otherwise, warned Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), “it means that we will be held hostage to this type of blackmail against ordinary American families time and time and time again. It’s time now to say enough of this.”
The new band of negotiators has been, so far, tight lipped as they work toward a deal that can somehow clear both chambers in the next few weeks. It’s a complex challenge in a narrowly divided Congress, with Democrats facing pressure from the left to resist anything Republicans propose at all — while conservatives assert that McCarthy should accept nothing less than their own deficit-slashing package last month.
“We’re going to hold the line. I think that’s what Graves is gonna do, that’s what the speaker’s gonna do,” said Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.), one of the dozen-plus conservatives who initially opposed McCarthy for speaker.
In fact, Clyde said Republicans should only accept changes that add even more of their wish list to the pile, like a recently passed border bill: “We could always make it better.”
Players in the talks also undoubtedly recall the recent history of the White House’s interventions into delicate Hill deals. Sen. Joe Manchin was unable to reach agreement with the president’s team in 2021 on a trillion-dollar progressive package the House labored to pass, insisting that it get cut down to size, and White House aides’ backchanneling with certain factions of House Democrats over that same bill led to chaos.
That’s on top of the first bipartisan foray of Biden’s presidency, an infrastructure deal that went nowhere when Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) tried to cut a deal with Ricchetti and other White House officials. Eventually Capito joined Sinema and other senators to write a law themselves, in consultation with the White House.
Still, Capito said that stumble was not due to Ricchetti or Terrell, saying both have “the confidence of the president” and that the administration “seems like they’re taking this more seriously.”
“I know all three well and have found them to be effective in negotiations, such as on the infrastructure bill, so I view it as a positive sign,” added Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), referring to the two White House officials and Young. “My experience has been, if you have people in the room who have experienced negotiations and want to get to an agreement, you usually do.”
Across the Capitol, some House Democrats still feel stung by a series of missteps made by Biden’s inner circle earlier this year. In one instance, Biden’s flip flop on a GOP crime measure humiliated dozens of Democrats who’d previously been reassured the president would back up their vote. And progressives are more cautious of Ricchetti’s influence after the departure of liberal ally and former Biden chief of staff Ron Klain.
So when Biden added Young, a former senior House Democratic aide, to his negotiating team, many in the caucus were ecstatic to see one of their own leading talks in an administration that’s leaned far more toward the Senate, the president’s former stomping grounds. In fact, when House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries mentioned Young’s role in the debt talks during a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, House Democrats burst into applause, according to a person who attended.
That goodwill has, perhaps surprisingly, carried across the aisle. During Young’s time on the House budget panel, senior Republicans were typically more likely to dial her up than the panel’s Democratic chair at the time. And she was seen as a pivotal dealmaker to resolve plenty of other spending crises, including ending the ugly 35-day government shutdown over then-President Donald Trump’s border wall.
“If we’re able to get a deal, it’s somebody like Shalanda that can do it,” said conservative Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), a longtime appropriator. “Obviously, while we may have a different viewpoint on some things, and I understand she works for the president, she’s someone that I’ve always had a good experience with.”
What’s unclear, though, is whether Biden and McCarthy’s newly slimmed-down band of emissaries can convince skeptics in both parties to support a budget deal designed to steer the nation away from a debt cliff that looms as closely as June 1.
“What do they have to offer? … They’re not doing anything realistic,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) when asked about Biden’s deputies coming to the table. “Democrats? It’s been a disaster. Name me one thing they’ve put forward.”
Adam Cancryn and Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.