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Biden, McCarthy hopeful on debt ceiling deal; US president cuts Asia trip short

WASHINGTON: Democratic President Joe Biden and top congressional Republican Kevin McCarthy edged closer to a deal to avoid a looming US debt default on Tuesday (May 16), as the threat of an economic nightmare prompted Biden to cut short an Asia trip this week.

After an hour of talks, McCarthy, the speaker of the House of Representatives, told reporters the two sides remained far apart on an agreement to lift the debt ceiling. But he said, "It is possible to get a deal by the end of the week. It's not that difficult to get to an agreement."

Democrats were not as positive about a quick time frame, but the White House called the meetings "productive and direct".

"There is still work to do," Biden later at a White House event honouring Jewish Americans. "We're on a path forward to make sure America does not default on its debt."

Biden said he was disappointed that Republicans will not consider ways to raise revenue. Raising taxes on the wealthy and companies to help pay for programmes for other Americans is a key part of Biden's 2024 budget.

Biden met for about an hour with McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries after their aides met over the weekend to try to strike a deal.

Republicans have refused to vote to lift the debt ceiling past its US$31.3 trillion limit unless Biden and his Democrats agree to spending cuts in the federal budget. However, McConnell said after the meeting, "We know we're not going to default."

The US government may default on some debts as early as Jun 1 unless Congress votes to lift the debt ceiling, and economists fear the country will slide into a recession.

Biden is "optimistic that there is a path to a responsible, bipartisan budget agreement if both sides negotiate in good faith and recognise that neither side will get everything it wants", the White House said.

Biden and congressional leaders' staff have met several times over the past week on the issue. Going forward, the talks will be narrowed for more engagement between House Republicans and the White House, McCarthy said.

Biden, who departs for Japan on Wednesday, plans to check in with leaders later this week by phone, and meet with them upon his return from overseas, the White House said.

White House adviser Steve Ricchetti, budget director Shalanda Young and legislative adviser Louisa Terrell will lead discussions for the administration.

The uncertainty around the debt ceiling prompted Biden to skip stops in Papua New Guinea and Australia after he attends a Group of Seven summit of the world's richest countries in Hiroshima, Japan.

"We've got a lot of work to do in a short amount of time," McCarthy told reporters, saying the Oval Office session had set the stage for future conversations.


Ahead of the meeting, sources said Biden and McCarthy's aides had discussed the requirements for two key programmes that provide food and cash aid to families.

Expanding the work requirements has been a key demand of Republicans, who are also pushing for spending cuts in exchange for their votes to raise the debt limit. McCarthy told reporters on Tuesday that his party, which controls the House by a 222-213 margin, would only agree to a deal that cuts spending.

"We can raise the debt ceiling if we limit what we're going to spend in the future," McCarthy told reporters.

Both parties agree on the need for urgent action.

In the past week, staffs for both sides have discussed a range of issues. In addition to work requirements for some benefit programmes for low-income Americans, spending caps and changes to energy permitting have been proposed in exchange for votes to lift the limit, according to people briefed on the talks.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to reveal details about closed-door negotiations, said the work requirement talks focus on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programme.

Biden alluded to the negotiations in public remarks over the weekend, saying he would not consider such a move for the Medicaid health programme for low-income Americans.


A similar 2011 standoff over the debt limit led to a historic downgrade of the US credit rating, sparking a sell-off in stocks and pushing the government's borrowing costs higher.

The current deadlock has rattled investors, sending the cost of insuring exposure to US government debt to record highs. A Reuters/Ipsos poll completed on Monday found that three-fourths of Americans fear a default would take a heavy toll on families like theirs.

Source: Reuters/ec


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