WASHINGTON — Top White House and Republican negotiators on Saturday reached an agreement in principle to raise the debt limit for two years while cutting and capping some government spending over the same period, a breakthrough after a marathon set of crisis talks that has brought the nation within days of its first default in history.
Congressional passage of the plan before June 5, when the Treasury is projected to exhaust its ability to pay its obligations, is not assured, particularly in the House. Republicans hold a narrow majority in the chamber, and right-wing lawmakers who had demanded significantly larger budget cuts in exchange for lifting the borrowing limit are all but certain to revolt.
But the compromise, which would effectively freeze federal spending that had been on track to grow, had the blessing of both President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, raising hopes that it could break the fiscal stalemate that has gripped Washington and the nation for weeks, threatening an economic crisis. The two spoke by phone Saturday evening to resolve final sticking points.
In a tweet, McCarthy called it “an agreement in principle that is worthy of the American people.”
The plan was structured with the aim of enticing votes from both parties, although it has drawn the ire not only of conservative Republicans but also Democrats furious at being asked to vote for cuts they oppose with the threat of default looming. Still, it gives Republicans the ability to say that they succeeded in reducing some federal spending — even as funding for the military and veterans’ programs would continue to grow — while allowing Democrats to say they spared most domestic programs from significant cuts.
The deal, which was still being finalized and written Saturday night, would raise the borrowing limit, which is currently $31.4 trillion, for two years — enough to get past the next presidential election.
According to a person familiar with the agreement, the deal also would impose new work requirements for some recipients of government aid, including food stamps and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. It would put new limits on the amount of time that certain recipients of food stamps — people under the age of 54, who do not have children — could benefit from the program. But it also would expand food stamp access for veterans and the homeless.
The tentative deal also claws back some unspent money from a previous pandemic relief bill, and reduces by $10 billion new enforcement funding for the IRS to crack down on tax cheats. It includes measures meant to speed environmental reviews of certain energy projects.
The work requirements and the environmental review reforms were among the last details the two sides worked out Saturday.
Negotiators — working around the clock at the Capitol, in the White House and virtually — pushed the resolution nearly to the last minute, increasing pressure on lawmakers to accept a solution likely to be unpopular with both parties’ bases. Economists and Wall Street analysts warned that a default would be devastating and potentially lead to a global economic meltdown.
To avert a default, the House and the Senate must pass the deal and send it to Biden for his signature. That promises to be a heavy lift for both McCarthy and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader, who must now cobble together a coalition of Republicans and Democrats.
McCarthy has repeatedly said he believes a majority of his conference would vote for the deal, but it is not clear yet how many Republicans will back the compromise — and how many Democrats might be needed to vote for it to make up for GOP defections.
A vote is expected within days, though lawmakers will have to be called back to Washington from a weeklong Memorial Day break. McCarthy had promised Republicans that he would adhere to a rule allowing lawmakers 72 hours to review legislative text before a vote. And the path could be rocky in the Senate, where quick action requires bipartisan support and conservatives have signaled they are unwilling to go along.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has vowed to use “every procedural tool” available to slow down any measure that does not contain substantial fiscal changes.
Republicans have refused for months to raise the debt limit unless Biden agreed to spending cuts and reduce future debt — risking a default to wield their leverage. The final agreement accomplishes their goal, but only modestly. A New York Times analysis of the spending caps at the center of the agreement suggests they will reduce federal spending by about $650 billion over a decade.
The cuts in the package are almost certainly both too modest to win the votes of hard-line conservatives, and too stringent to win the votes of progressives in the House. Lawmakers in the House Freedom Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus had already begun to fume about the emerging contours of a deal before negotiators finalized the agreement.
The deal would impose caps on discretionary spending for two years, though those caps would apply differently to spending on the military than to the rest of the federal budget. Spending on the military would grow next year, as would spending on some veterans’ care. Spending on other domestic programs would fall slightly — or stay roughly flat — compared with this year’s levels.
White House officials privately described discretionary spending outside of defense programs as roughly equivalent to what would have been spent if Congress had failed to agree on new funding bills for the next fiscal year and instead continued government operations at the same funding levels as this year.
The announcement came after months of political brinkmanship. Biden and congressional Democrats initially insisted that House Republicans raise the debt ceiling without conditions, but relented after McCarthy marshaled his conference to pass a bill to increase the nation’s borrowing limit in exchange for cutting government programs by an average of 18% over a decade. Republicans purposefully avoided laying out exactly which programs they planned to cut, but the bill’s passage forced Biden to do what he had said he never would: negotiate over raising the debt ceiling.
The deal was ultimately struck by a group led by Biden’s counselor, Steve Ricchetti; his budget director, Shalanda Young; and two of McCarthy’s closest confidants, Reps. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina and Garret Graves of Louisiana. They agreed to use some creative accounting maneuvers in the deal to help provide both sides political cover.
But McCarthy was still likely to face a revolt from the hard-right lawmakers in his conference whom he empowered as part of the concessions he made to become speaker in January, after a bruising 15-round election.
Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, an influential conservative, had urged Republicans on Thursday not to “tuck tail, take the first exit ramp” from negotiations “and walk away.”
“Republicans must hold the line and rally around each and every purposeful reform in the Limit, Save, Grow Act and not allow these reforms to be abandoned or watered down in the quest for a ‘deal’ with Biden,” Roy wrote in a separate opinion essay, referring to the name of the debt-limit bill that House Republicans passed.
Progressives, too, had vented their unhappiness before the deal was even announced.
Lindsay Owens, the executive director of the liberal Groundwork Collaborative in Washington, criticized the deal for forcing budget cuts in domestic programs — and in particular, for reducing enforcement money for the IRS.
“Conceding to Republican demands to hamstring the IRS’ ability to go after wealthy tax evaders is a losing proposition for Democrats,” she said. “It undermines an important policy initiative, drains a good source of revenue and requires the caucus to vote down a policy that is incredibly popular with the public.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.