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Debt ceiling talks aren't going well. Here's where they stand

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy speaks to the media at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
Kevin Dietsch
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Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy speaks to the media at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Updated May 24, 2023 at 1:18 PM ET

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy says he's sending his negotiating team back to the White House to "try to finish up the negotiations" with President Biden's team after several days that showed few signs of progress as the U.S. teeters close to the brink of an unprecedented default on its debt.

"I think we can make progress today. I'm hoping that we can make progress," McCarthy said on Wednesday morning, before level setting that the groups remain "far apart."

His comments come a day after Republican negotiators shared their frustration at the state of staff-level talks.

"There is a significant gap between where we are and where they are," Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves, a top proxy for McCarthy in talks told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday night. "Unless and until the White House recognizes that this is a spending problem, then we're gonna continue to have a significant gap."

Meanwhile, the White House is still talking about reducing the deficit by closing tax loopholes and raising taxes on billionaires, which has already been rejected by Republicans.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a briefing on Tuesday that the talks have yielded one agreement: default isn't an option. She also insisted that despite the difficult nature of negotiations, the talks have been productive.

"We believe there is a space and an opportunity here to have a bipartisan, reasonable ... budget agreement," she said.

But the clock is ticking.

Discussions on spending caps appear frozen

One area of stalemate between the camps is spending caps. Republicans want to cut fiscal 2024 spending to the 2022 level, or at least below spending of the current year, as well as cap annual growth. They say a proposed freeze of spending at the 2023 level is not sufficient.

Another area GOP negotiators say is still undecided is the duration of a debt limit increase.

McCarthy has indicated he's not interested in a short-term solution — lifting the debt limit for weeks or a month without any conditions — as negotiators work on a deal for a longer-term plan to avoid a default.

"I don't think short-term helps anybody. I think it kicks the can down the road," he said Tuesday.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., slammed House Republicans for taking an "it's my way or the highway" position.

"That is not a road to a bipartisan resolution," he told reporters. "That is an effort to take this country on a reckless legislative joyride to a dangerous default, and that is why America is in this situation right now."

GOP negotiators see June 1 as a hard deadline

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has repeatedly warned lawmakers the U.S. could be unable to pay its bills and default on its debt as early as June 1.

It's a deadline both Graves and North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, a key McCarthy ally involved in the talks, say they are operating under.

McHenry, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, called Yellen a "straight shooter."

"I followed her service in government. She has the most varied economic experience of any living American in the most important economic positions in our government," he told reporters. "I don't think there's any wiggle room for us."

A June 1 deadline puts significant pressure on lawmakers not only to come to an agreement on a compromise bill — but to actually write it.

McHenry said he expects it will take between 24-48 hours to write the text of the legislation, and reiterated the House has a rule that allows members a minimum of 72 hours to review the bill before voting on it. House members are scheduled to be on recess next week, although McCarthy has said members will return to D.C. if there's a bill.

Republicans praise White House team but suggest they are hamstrung

Both Graves and McHenry have been effusive in their praise of the White House negotiating team, Steve Ricchetti and Capitol Hill veteran Shalanda Young.

But Graves expressed frustration at the nature of their recent meetings.

"These negotiations have been frustrating, right? And there have been times when I think trust has been called into question," he said, offering this analogy: "If what they're going to do is they're going to treat us like somebody buying a used car, and they're gonna say, 'Well, I gotta go talk to my manager. Oh, sorry. The manager won't drop the price, but he'll throw in car mats' — like, that doesn't do it."

McHenry added: "I think [the White House has] put severe constraints on really talented people that are in the room, and that is not in service to the deal."

The pair maintain, however, that some progress is being made in these meetings.

"There are moments where things get rough and there's other times where they're not, but there's been a general sense of comity in the room — and, since Graves is in the room, a little bit of comedy," McHenry added, nodding to Graves' reputation as a bit of a practical joker.

It's a balancing act for McCarthy with fellow Republicans, too

It's very likely that both House progressives and the conservative House Freedom caucus will not be satisfied by whatever compromise deal is made between the White House and Speaker McCarthy's team.

House progressives already expressed concern when Biden suggested he might be willing to entertain possible work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents who are enrolled in federal safety net programs like food stamps — a central GOP demand.

New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged some Democrats may vote for a compromise bill — but she has her own lines in the sand.

"I do not believe that the president would call on the progressive caucus of all the caucuses in the Democratic Party to support legislation that he knows is contrary to progressive values," she said. "We have not received any sort of indication that the White House would be asking us to do that. There are multiple caucuses in the Democratic Party. If Kevin McCarthy needs five votes, he can get them from somewhere, but he's not going to get it from me."

Biden and all four top congressional leaders have previously agreed that any deal will need to have bipartisan support to pass both chambers of Congress.

This creates a bit of a balancing act for McCarthy, who has a narrow majority in the House and must craft a deal that satisfies the demands of the majority of his conference and not alienate the Democrats he'll need to have on board in order for the deal to pass.

He also can't go too far in angering the more conservative flank of his party. In his protracted fight for the speaker's gavel, McCarthy agreed to a provision that would allow any single lawmaker to bring up a snap vote to potentially oust him.

For his part, McCarthy defended his ability to pass a bipartisan deal.

"[I've been] underestimated the whole time," he told reporters.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.