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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As Biden and McCarthy meet over debt limit, Northwest Republicans say any deal must include spending cuts

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to reporters outside the White House Wednesday after meeting with President Joe Biden about debt ceiling negotiations.  (Orion Donovan-Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – House Speaker Kevin McCarthy strode out of the White House on Wednesday with a message full of confidence but short on specifics, signaling the nation could be in for a long fight over how – and under what conditions – the government should pay the bills it has incurred.

After “a good first meeting” that lasted longer than an hour with President Joe Biden about raising America’s borrowing limit, the Californian told reporters his fellow Republicans in Congress were united in their demand for spending cuts in exchange for passing legislation to increase the self-imposed debt ceiling, but he declined to share any details from the conversation.

Northwest GOP lawmakers have backed that position, while Democrats accuse them of hypocrisy after Republicans raised the debt ceiling without conditions three times under former President Donald Trump. The federal government hasn’t had a balanced budget since Bill Clinton was president, and both parties have contributed similar amounts to the $31.4 trillion national debt through tax cuts and increased spending.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, said in a statement that Americans understand the growing national debt is unsustainable.

“I believe Congress must take significant steps to balance the budget and eliminate our debt over the long term, which is why I support a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution,” he said. “We simply cannot continue mortgaging our children and grandchildren’s futures.”

Much of the nation’s debt is owed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and George W. Bush-era tax cuts Congress mostly preserved through the Obama administration. Trump approved $4.7 trillion in debt even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and pandemic relief spending brought the national debt to $28 trillion by the time Biden took office.

Biden has boasted – misleadingly – about decreasing the nation’s deficit as those pandemic relief programs have expired. But during his first two years in office, he approved $4.8 trillion in new borrowing through 2031, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonprofit that advocates for a balanced budget.

Since Congress created the debt ceiling during World War I, both parties voted to raise it with relatively little controversy for nearly a century, until the “Tea Party” wave of fiscally conservative Republicans came to power in 2011 and used the debt ceiling as leverage to extract concessions from then-President Barack Obama.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Republicans shouldn’t risk the economic catastrophe that could occur if Congress doesn’t raise the debt limit and the government stops paying its bills.

“This is about the full faith and credit of the United States,” she said Wednesday at the Capitol. “They should come to the table and speak about what it’s going to take to get this resolved, but not push the economy to the brink of another situation like we had before.”

A spokesman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said the Spokane Republican is “open to reviewing appropriate budget cuts during what she hopes will be a transparent process.”

“Cathy believes we need to have an honest conversation about the current state of spending and the dangerous rate at which we are adding to our national debt,” spokesman Kyle Von Ende said in a statement. “The path we are on right now is not sustainable, which is why it’s critical for Congress to get serious about reforms to the budget process that will help us live within our means.”

Biden has so far insisted that Congress should pass a “clean” bill to lift the debt ceiling with no conditions and challenged Republicans to propose a budget to show exactly what programs they would cut. McCarthy has ruled out cuts to defense spending and popular entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and veterans’ benefits, which together make up the bulk of federal spending.

It remains unclear which spending cuts Republicans will insist on making as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has estimated the nation will be able to pay its bills until some time in June before the limit must be increased.