Opinion | Why Biden Should Not Negotiate With Kevin McCarthy on the Debt Ceiling

When President Biden meets with congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday, he will most likely reiterate his position that Congress should pass a bill lifting the debt ceiling without negotiations or conditions.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. Some are mystified that Mr. Biden — a seasoned congressional negotiator who is running for re-election on a record of bipartisan accomplishments — is passing up an opportunity to cut another deal. After months of unity, some Democrats, reverting to their natural state of disarray, are breaking ranks to pressure the president to the table. A poll from Echelon Insights showed that voters support the idea of negotiating over the debt limit.

Mr. Biden’s strategy is undoubtedly risky. But from the perspective of someone who had a front-row seat inside the White House to the last two debt-limit standoffs between a Democratic president and a Republican House, Mr. Biden’s refusal to negotiate on the debt ceiling is the best strategy. Facing an urgent deadline and a daunting political context — with the House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, joined to an unstable, far-right bloc of Republican representatives who limit his maneuverability — the president can ideally find a way to extend discussions around the debt ceiling and fiscal issues. Otherwise, he will have to find a way around the House.

The president must know that Mr. McCarthy is not a negotiating partner who can be trusted to deliver. The speaker’s fate is in the hands of representatives — including many House Freedom Caucus members — who have shown very little willingness for compromise or good-faith negotiation. With their threats to plunge the country into default for the first time in its history, they can plausibly be seen as a threat to the nation’s economy and its stability as a global financial power.

That puts severe limits on the terms of any discussion about the debt ceiling. Still, Republicans won control of the House in the midterms. They have a legitimate voice in any debates over the country’s fiscal future. Mr. Biden should negotiate with Mr. McCarthy over the budget and other fiscal matters and propose a process for doing that — but first, Mr. McCarthy must remove the threat of imminent default.

President Barack Obama confronted similar scenarios twice. In 2011, he spent months negotiating with Speaker John Boehner to strike a “grand bargain” that would help solve America’s longstanding fiscal problems. But Mr. Boehner couldn’t deliver his caucus in support of the framework, and the nation hurtled toward default. With only a few days to go, negotiators were able to strike a smaller agreement that satisfied no one, left both sides angry about the result and was damaging for the country. The United States’ credit rating was downgraded for the first time in the nation’s history, and borrowing costs for the government went up.

Mr. Obama’s approval rating slumped, even dipping below 40 percent in Gallup polling. Our internal polling in the White House showed the president losing re-election handily to a generic Republican. A painful lesson was learned: Negotiating with the ticking clock of a global financial collapse was a losing proposition.

In 2013, Republicans tried to leverage the debt limit again — this time they targeted his signature legislation by pushing to defund the Affordable Care Act. Mr. Obama declared that as a matter of principle he would not negotiate over the debt limit. It was Congress’s job to lift the debt limit, he said, and Republicans would do it or take the blame for sparking a global recession. From the White House, we watched the G.O.P.’s poll numbers go into the toilet. Their polls must have showed the same thing, because they eventually abandoned their demands and passed a clean debt limit bill.

Republicans are at it again, targeting a signature piece of legislation — this time, the Inflation Reduction Act — and demanding draconian spending cuts.

Mr. Biden was deeply involved in the decision-making during the Obama-era debt limit fights. He knows what is at stake. His re-election campaign will undoubtedly rely in part on his record of bipartisan accomplishment in the first two years. His reputation as someone willing to compromise with the other side is a political asset.

Refusing to negotiate with Mr. McCarthy is off brand. But even if the optics of Mr. Biden seeming obstinate are bad, they pale in comparison with the devastating consequences of default. Sure, the public is likely to blame the House Republicans for pushing us over the cliff. That’s what our polling showed in 2011 and 2013. But after the dust settles, the incumbent president running for re-election will pay the political price for the dire economic consequences.

The only politics that matter is avoiding default — and Mr. Biden’s approach is the best way to do that. It also offers Mr. Biden a chance to highlight two qualities that he will likely run on in 2024: He’s a man of principle, but he’s also a sensible man who can get things done.

The biggest impediment to negotiations is that, with Mr. McCarthy, the president faces a weak negotiating partner. That said, Mr. Biden should have two objectives. The first is to make sure the debt limit is extended through the election so that we are not right back in this precarious position next year.

To get that, he will need to work with Mr. McCarthy to find a framework for fiscal negotiations. Perhaps that means drawing Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, into the process. Mr. McConnell has repeatedly said he has no plans to get involved and that it was up to Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Biden to work out a deal. But in the past, deals with Mr. McConnell’s imprimatur were able to garner enough Republicans to succeed in the House and save face for a Republican speaker.

This will not be easy. The House Republicans might be too far right to be part of a deal. After all, any deal between the president and the speaker will still require a majority of the House and at least 60 Senate votes. It’s frankly very hard to see a deal or deals that could have Mr. Biden’s support as well as the support of a majority of House Republicans — especially since Mr. McCarthy has made it clear that, to continue his speakership, his strategy is to stay in the good graces of the Freedom Caucus and other MAGA Republicans.

Still, the most important reason to avoid entering into negotiations over the debt limit itself goes beyond politics. It is why, in 2011, Mr. Obama pledged never again after trying to negotiate with the Republicans. Allowing the Republicans to use the threat of default as extortion could cripple the remainder of Mr. Biden’s presidency.

This time it’s spending cuts and work requirements for Medicaid recipients. What happens when the debt limit comes up again next year? Will the Republicans demand a federal abortion ban? A pardon for the Jan. 6 perpetrators?

Another option reportedly under consideration by the White House is whether the president can use the 14th Amendment to ignore the debt limit. Even if he can, it would surely be a break-glass moment: Invoking the 14th Amendment could buy a little time to keep paying creditors, veterans health benefits, Social Security and the like. But it would put the fate of the global economy in the hands of the courts, and it’s not clear how the markets would react to that uncertainty.

The 2023 debt ceiling crisis seems much more dangerous the ones President Obama dealt with when I worked in the West Wing. A lot is going to happen in the next few weeks, but if Democrats want to avoid default and once again save the nation from radical Republicans, their best bet is sticking with President Biden and calling the Republicans’ bluff.

Daniel Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer), a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. is a co-host of Pod Save America and author of the newsletter Message Box.

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