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Glimmers of optimism on a debt limit deal as Biden and McCarthy directly engage

President Biden was joined by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in the Oval Office on Monday.Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — While President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy remained far apart Tuesday on a deal to raise the debt limit, there have been glimmers of optimism that one will be struck before next week’s deadline for a simple but significant reason: They’re still talking.

The two have toned down their rhetoric since Biden returned from Japan on Sunday. McCarthy and one of his top deputies even praised the “professionalism” of the White House and its team in the complex, high-stakes negotiations over federal government spending. And there’s hope that if a deal can be reached to raise the $31.4 trillion debt limit, the relationship being developed between the two could pave the way for future negotiations.


“They won’t like one another if they get to the end and don’t reach a deal. But if they get a deal, that’s a bonding experience and it helps them both know one another and take one another’s measure a little bit better,” said Representative Tom Cole, a veteran Oklahoma Republican who chairs the powerful House Rules Committee.

“I think they’re a lot alike personally, not philosophically, but in the sense of being operationally pragmatic,” Cole said of Biden and McCarthy, who had never dealt with each other until McCarthy became speaker in January. “These are engaging personalities. . . . I’ve always thought if you could get them together for a very long time they could find ways to work together.”

Biden and McCarthy have been spending more time together in recent weeks as the nation heads toward an economically catastrophic default — as soon as June 1, according to the latest Treasury Department estimate — unless Congress votes to raise the debt limit.

Each side has blamed the other for the delay. McCarthy said Biden refused to talk for months while Biden said he was waiting for Republicans to present their spending plan, which they did not do until late April. There was more finger-pointing on that matter Tuesday.


But since Biden and McCarthy met in the Oval Office Monday afternoon, they and their deputies have stressed that talks have been “productive” and continue to move forward even as CNN said that McCarthy reportedly told House Republicans in a private meeting Tuesday morning that they “are nowhere near a deal.”

“We’re at the point we are, but we’re continuing to talk the whole time, it’s very professional and very productive in the manner that we can have these discussions,” McCarthy told reporters later Tuesday. “We know exactly what our differences are. We’re trying to work to try to find a way to get there.”

Their designated staff negotiators met for several hours at the Capitol on Tuesday, but couldn’t get past the biggest sticking point of what spending limits would be attached to a debt limit increase — a key GOP request. McCarthy wants to cap federal spending at 2022 levels and Biden wants to freeze it at this year’s level.

Still, McCarthy and Biden have expressed optimism they can bridge their differences in time to avoid default.

“While areas of disagreement remain, the president, the speaker, and their teams will continue to discuss the path forward,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday. “If everyone is working in good faith and recognizes that no one is going to get exactly what they want, we’ll get it done. That’s the way we see this.”


McCarthy acknowledged that limitation on a deal after the Monday White House meeting, telling reporters, “No one thinks” that only one side is going to get everything.

McCarthy has stressed that House Republicans already have achieved one victory now that Biden is negotiating over the debt limit. The president vowed for months that he would not while calling on House Republicans to pass a “clean” debt limit increase as Congress has done dozens of times before. Cole said McCarthy’s team played a video at Tuesday’s private House Republican meeting showing Jean-Pierre saying multiple times there would be no debt limit negotiation.

“They kept underestimating the opposition,” Cole said of White House officials.

McCarthy was able to get his narrow and fractious House majority to unite on a debt limit bill with spending cuts on April 26. That bill does not have enough support to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. But Senate Democrats can’t pass a clean debt limit increase because they lack enough Republican support to prevent a filibuster.

That’s led to negotiations that began earlier in May and have picked up momentum since Biden cut short his Asian trip last week to return to Washington and work on a deal. Biden has a history of deal-making from his long tenure in the Senate and while serving as vice president under Barack Obama.

“I think we can never understate how important personal relationships are and I think that one of the most important things in negotiating is to try to develop an element of trust,” said Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat who has served in Congress for more than three decades. He noticed that the tone of the negotiations has “changed considerably.”


“I’m optimistic because the alternative is really bad,” Neal said.

Biden and McCarthy have made the same point about the dire economic consequences of a government default.

“We’re optimistic we may be able to make some progress because we both agree that . . . default is not really on the table,” Biden told reporters in the Oval Office Monday before the meeting. “We got to get something done here.”

Representative Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican and one of the House Republican negotiators, said the atmosphere is conducive to a deal despite the gulf on the details.

“The teams in the room have built some level of relationship and trust that we can actually get a product that is mutually agreeable to,” he said after the Monday Oval Office meeting, which he attended.

McHenry also sees McCarthy and Biden as trying to get to an agreement, even if their relationship might be much different than another deal-making pair in the 1980s: President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, and House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., a Cambridge Democrat.

“You have two Irish guys that don’t drink. That’s a different setup than Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan,” McHenry said of Biden and McCarthy. “But what I saw in the Oval Office [Monday] was a willingness to engage with each other in a sincere way, air disagreements, listen, and I think that was productive.”


Tal Kopan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at Follow him @JimPuzzanghera.