House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s stance that cuts to Medicare and Social Security are off the table in exchange for raising the debt ceiling has drawn skepticism from his main negotiating partner: the White House.
McCarthy is set to meet with President Joe Biden on Wednesday in a face-to-face that has already been the subject of positioning and political messaging, moves that both sides hope will shape the fight to raise the debt limit over the next few months. White House officials have been adamant that there will be no talks on the issue, while House Republicans have billed Wednesday’s meeting as the start of talks on the debt ceiling.
Biden, asked by CNN what his message to McCarthy at that meeting would be, said it would be “show me your budget and I’ll show you mine.”
The statement reflects an insistence by White House officials and congressional Democrats to force Republicans to put a plan on the table — though they insist there will be no negotiations on the matter.
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In the absence of a concrete plan, which Republicans generally said would focus on cutting spending, White House officials pushed for political leverage, questioning McCarthy’s commitment to leaving Medicare and Social Security intact given the position of some members in a conference.
“While voting for even more tax relief for the wealthy, House Republicans are demanding cuts to Medicare and Social Security as a ransom for not causing an economic crisis,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates told CNN. “Yesterday, Speaker McCarthy said he opposed it, but then immediately approved cuts to Medicare and Social Security, under the guise of ‘strengthening’ the programs. Is this their only plan? We have yet to see another.”
Bates was referring to McCarthy’s appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” where the California Republican said he wanted to “find a sensible and responsible way that we can raise the debt ceiling, but take control of this crazy spending.”
Asked about Social Security and Medicare, McCarthy said he wanted to “take them off the table,” but also cited a broad House GOP policy agenda laid out before the midterm elections that gave him a narrow majority.
“If you read our Commitment to America, all we talk about is strengthening Medicare and Social Security,” McCarthy said. “I know the president doesn’t want to look at it, but we have to make sure we strengthen them.”
McCarthy’s pledge, which is backed by former President Donald Trump, provides a window into the complex political dynamics facing House Republicans as they push for negotiations while still working to coalesce around a proposal to bring to the table.
White House officials are watching closely — and wasting no time responding — to House Republican preferences they see as politically unpopular and politically expedient.
In a Monday memo to “stakeholders” written by National Economic Council Director Brian Dease and Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young, Biden’s top economic advisers said the president intended to ask McCarthy two questions on Wednesday when the two men meet: Will McCarthy commit to keeping the US in default and when McCarthy and House Republicans will release their budget.
Dease and Young went on to describe McCarthy as an “outlier,” pointing to previous bipartisan efforts to raise the debt limit, including under the previous administration, and citing a 1987 radio address on the issue by Republican President Ronald Reagan.
Biden, the officials wrote, “will seek a clear commitment from Chairman McCarthy that default — as well as suggestions by members of his caucus to default under another name — are unacceptable.”
They added: “President Biden will ask Chairman McCarthy to publicly assure the American people and the rest of the world that the United States will, as always, honor all of its financial obligations.”
Dease and Young urged McCarthy and House Republicans to “transparently lay out to the American people their fiscal and economic proposals in the normal budget process,” as the White House had previously questioned McCarthy’s commitment to leaving Social Security and Medicare intact.
The White House is coordinating closely with congressional Democrats in efforts to get Republicans to unveil their own proposal, though they have maintained a united front at the leadership level in opposition to any actual negotiations.
More broadly, significant questions remain about whether House Republicans can find the necessary 218 votes to do anything, given the fierce opposition from some in the conference to raising the debt ceiling at all.
Still, the focus on Medicare and Social Security, even though McCarthy decided to take changes off the table, underscores the White House’s view of the programs’ political salience.
White House officials point to the framework of “strengthening” the programs as a euphemism for structural changes they oppose. The lack of a clear House Republican proposal has become a central line of attack in a debate that is still in its infancy — with potentially dramatic consequences.
“Now that they are voting for even more tax relief for the wealthy, Republicans across the House conference are demanding cuts to Medicare and Social Security as redemption for not causing an economic crisis,” Bates said.