Biden’s Debt-Deal Strategy: Win in the Fine Print

It was not an assured outcome. The negotiating teams came to the table with divergent views of the drivers of federal debt in recent years. White House negotiators blamed Republican tax cuts. Republicans blamed Mr. Biden’s economic agenda, including a debt-financed Covid relief bill in 2021 and a bipartisan infrastructure bill later that year.

The dispute occasionally grew profane. At one point, after Mr. Biden’s negotiators criticized the 2017 Republican tax cuts, a “very mild-mannered” aide to Mr. McCarthy stood up, shook his finger at the Biden team and hotly responded that their argument was nonsense, using a vulgarity, Mr. Graves recounted.

Mr. Biden had insisted for months that he would not negotiate over raising the borrowing limit. But privately, many aides had been planning on talks all along — though they refused to admit those talks were linked to the debt limit. The Biden team reasoned that it would have to negotiate fiscal issues this year anyway, both on appropriations bills and on programs like food stamps that are included in a regularly reauthorized farm bill.

Mr. Biden’s economic advisers, including Lael Brainard, the director of the National Economic Council, and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, were warning of catastrophic damage to the economy if the government could no longer pay its bills on time.

The president appeared to score wins before the talks even started. He goaded Republicans into agreeing, in the midst of his State of the Union address, that Social Security and Medicare would be off limits in the talks — thanks to a spontaneous riff that grew out of a passage in his speech that he had worked on extensively in the days beforehand. He proposed a budget filled with tax increases on the rich and corporations that were meant to reduce debt, but he refused to engage Mr. McCarthy in serious talks until Republicans offered a spending plan of their own.

In late April, the House passed a bill that included $4.7 trillion in savings from spending cuts, canceling clean-energy tax breaks and clawing back money for Covid relief and the I.R.S. It featured work requirements and measures to speed fossil fuel projects, and it raised the debt limit for one year.

Mr. Biden, under fire from business groups and others who feared the standoff could result in the United States running out of money before the debt limit was raised, soon agreed to designate a team of negotiators. The White House team was led by officials including Ms. Young and one of her top aides, Michael Linden, who delayed his departure from the White House to help negotiate along with Louisa Terrell, the legislative affairs director, and Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president.

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Mohammad SHiblu

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