Inside the Debt Ceiling Negotiations on Capitol Hill
On Capitol Hill, the delicate talks to avert default on the government’s debts this week took place over middle-of-the-night video calls, marathon meetings in an opulent conference room, and at least one early morning bike ride.
At the White House, evening tour groups were diverted from the West Wing because President Biden was in the Oval Office with his chief of staff and other advisers, who needed his quick feedback.
But all of the talking has so far failed to produce a deal to raise the country’s debt limit, raising fears of a potentially catastrophic default that could upend financial markets, spike interest rates and end in a downgrade of the nation’s credit.
The negotiators got a bit of breathing room on Friday afternoon, when Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said the United States could run out of money to pay its bills on time by June 5 — a slight extension from the previous June 1 deadline.
But a week of frenetic and “productive” meetings has given those trapped in the negotiating room the distinct feeling that the days and nights were all running together.
“Here we are, night after night after night,” said Representative Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, one of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s top lieutenants.
“Everyone wants a detail of this,” Mr. McHenry said, as a crowd of reporters demanded to know whether the country was going to descend into economic calamity or not. “Everyone wants a tweet. I want an agreement that changes the trajectory of the country.”
As he spoke, the normally gregarious congressman telegraphed his fatigue in the smallest of ways: The bow tie he wears every day was gone.
Mr. McCarthy, who went for a bike ride on Friday morning with one of his key negotiators, Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana, weighed in with the obvious: “We got to make more progress now.”
Though Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy have known each other for years and speak (mostly) respectfully about each other in public, their relationship has so far not been about finding comity but about extracting concessions.
“You have two Irish guys that don’t drink,” Mr. McHenry quipped earlier in the week. “That’s a different setup than Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan,” a reference to Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., a Democrat, and the Republican president, who also shared Irish heritage, and were known to share a beer.
Mr. Biden’s aides have been working around the clock since talks abruptly fell apart a week ago, leading to a Republican-imposed “pause” on talks that surprised members of the president’s negotiating team. From Japan, Mr. Biden demanded frequent updates, and ended a scheduled dinner early to receive a briefing on the talks. On the last day of his trip, Mr. Biden’s advisers back in Washington woke up at 4:30 a.m. to update him by video.
Since then, negotiators on both sides have met several times in a conference room on the House side of Capitol Hill, under a fresco painted by the artist Constantino Brumidi that depicts “a retired Roman general recalled to defend his city, a classical event often seen as parallel to the life of George Washington,” according to the Architect of the Capitol’s website.
Descriptions of the meetings themselves have not been nearly as colorful. Mr. McHenry expressed dismay this week at all the people pretending to know what was happening.
“Everybody wants to have conjecture or wants to have some self-serving read about what we’re talking about, but there’s just a few of us in the room,” he said.
Mr. Biden’s team of negotiators has been led by Shalanda D. Young, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Steve Ricchetti, the counselor to the president, who has been Mr. Biden’s liaison to Capitol Hill since his days as vice president. Mr. Ricchetti has been ferried back and forth along Pennsylvania Avenue all week, moving between White House meetings and meetings with Republicans, according to a person familiar with his schedule.
Throughout the negotiations, Mr. Ricchetti has been the lone member of the team empowered to make strategic decisions on Mr. Biden’s behalf, according to two people familiar with the talks. (He is also one of the few people who is empowered to answer the president’s phone on Mr. Biden’s behalf when they are together.)
The group also includes Louisa Terrell, the legislative affairs director. Both she and Ms. Young have deep relationships on Capitol Hill; Ms. Young was a longtime staff member on the House Committee on Appropriations who has built up respect with both Republicans and Democrats, according to several former administration officials. Ms. Terrell’s experience on Capitol Hill dates back to Mr. Biden’s Senate office.
Their experience will be key in continuing to sell members on any deal that may come, according to several people involved. When Capitol Hill negotiators traveled to the White House midweek, they met at a conference room near Ms. Young’s suite of offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
At the White House, Mr. Biden gets daily updates from Jeffrey D. Zients, his chief of staff. Mr. Zients has not been as involved in the negotiations, people familiar say, but he is leading internal strategy meetings and is in regular contact with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, and Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the House’s top Democrat. (Mr. Schumer said in a statement that the president’s negotiators are “available when we have questions.”)
Mr. Biden is also working closely with Bruce Reed, a senior policy adviser who was Mr. Biden’s chief of staff during the debt-ceiling talks in 2011 and 2013, and Lael Brainard, his top economic adviser.
Mr. Biden, who does not believe in negotiating in public — as he has said several times since becoming president — has stayed quiet except to say on Thursday that he and Mr. McCarthy have “a very different view of who should bear the burden of additional efforts to get our fiscal house in order.”
As such, at the Capitol, the negotiators have taken on a kind of celebrity status among reporters, with scrums of dozens of journalists trailing them and hanging on their every word for any insight into the talks.
Non-reporters were less enraptured: As a mob of journalists chased Mr. Graves out of the Capitol on Friday afternoon, pressing themselves against one another to get within earshot, an onlooker said, “I don’t even know who that is.”
Mr. McCarthy has begun talking to the media several times a day, often repeating the same talking points but never missing the opportunity to get his side out to the public. (At least twice he has walked into the middle of a reporter’s live TV appearance, adopted a broad smile and started speaking to the people watching at home.)
Mr. Graves, a media-shy Louisiana Republican, tried to meet with the members of the Louisiana State University women’s national basketball championship team on Thursday as reporters trailed him in search of any scrap of information: “Didn’t you see the speaker?” he told a pack of journalists at one point, trying to redirect them away from him.
Despite all the interest, the House ended its votes for the week on Thursday morning, with most of the lawmakers happy to leave Washington. Some Democrats stayed behind to shame their Republican colleagues for skipping town with an economic calamity looming.
“America may run out of the ability to pay our bills and extreme MAGA Republicans have chosen to get out of town before sundown,” Mr. Jeffries said from the House floor.
Soon, most of the Democrats left too. The country might default on its debt in a little over a week. But first, there was Memorial Day weekend.