Debt-Limit Talks Stall as Time Runs Short to Avert US Default

Debt limit talks in Washington have hit a fresh impasse with negotiators far apart on key issues, especially the spending cuts demanded by Republicans, as time runs short to avert a historic US default.

(Bloomberg) — Debt limit talks in Washington have hit a fresh impasse with negotiators far apart on key issues, especially the spending cuts demanded by Republicans, as time runs short to avert a historic US default.

Negotiators were tentatively planning to return to the table amid the stalemate. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he had spoken to White House negotiators early Wednesday and that discussions would continue. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also told a Wall Street Journal forum Wednesday morning that the two sides are still trying to reach a deal.

House Republicans have escalated their accusations that Biden lacks urgency in negotiations, while a Democratic aide called McCarthy unwilling to compromise across a wide spectrum of disputed points, threatening the legislative prospects of a deal.

Republican negotiator Representative Garret Graves said in an interview there was no meeting set and not much progress was being made. But he did not rule out a deal coming together. 

“We’re just going to keep working,” he said. 

It is not unusual for Congress to strike budget deals at the last minute when the pressure becomes great enough to force negotiators to make painful choices.

Yellen said Wednesday that the world is just seeing the beginnings of the potential market stress if the debt crisis continues. 

US stocks are showing increasing signs of concern over the standoff, with the S&P 500 index down 0.8% in early trading Wednesday, after a 1.1% slump on Tuesday. In the Treasuries market, investors are demanding ever-higher premiums on bills that mature when the government is seen most at risk of default. Rates on securities due June 1 and June 6 surpassed 6%.

If a default did occur, economists project it could send the US into a recession, with widespread job losses and higher consumer borrowing costs spilling into the coming election year.

“The current standoff over the US debt ceiling has the potential to wreak more havoc on the economy than any previous go-around,” wrote Bloomberg Economics chief economist Anna Wong. 

What Bloomberg Economics Says …

Spending cuts required to get the Republican side to “yes” on a deal could cost as much as 570,000 jobs, our model shows. Failing to reach a timely compromise could be even worse, triggering a downturn as severe as 8% of GDP.

—Anna Wong, Bloomberg Economics. Click here for the report.

Read More: Band of Democrats Readies McCarthy Lifeline for Debt Compromise

The Treasury secretary on Monday called it “highly likely” that her department would run out of cash in early June without an extension of the debt ceiling, and repeated her warning that the moment could come as soon as June 1. On Wednesday, she said the department would update Congress soon with a more precise timeline.

McCarthy has told Biden that he doesn’t intend to retreat from public refusals to accept additional taxes as part of an agreement, and has held to demands that defense spending should increase while non-defense discretionary spending should be cut, according to a Democratic aide. 

The speaker has also declined White House requests to scale back his proposed expansion of work requirements for food stamp programs, the person said.

The speaker isn’t alone in drawing red lines. The White House has said Biden would flatly reject a proposal that imposes work requirements on federal health care programs, or any effort to repeal the president’s signature Inflation Reduction Act legislation. 

Read More: Debt-Limit Doomsday Clock: What June Looks Like for US Treasury

McCarthy likely has little room to give, as he looks to hold together a fragile GOP coalition. Republicans want to slash domestic spending over as many years as possible, while Democrats have offered slimmer cuts over a couple of years.

Democrats argue that while Biden has offered concessions – including a two-year spending cap and rescinding significant unspent coronavirus funds – McCarthy has refused sweeteners that could win over Democratic lawmakers. 

Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic leader, told reporters that a freeze at 2023 spending levels would be a “reasonable” compromise. Jeffries, who has opposed work requirements, said any accord that requires Democratic votes must reflect Democratic priorities.

Yet Republicans believe McCarthy has leverage in the talks, assisted by Biden’s initial refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling. Polls show that Americans generally favor pairing spending cuts with raising the debt ceiling, though that approval drops when the programs that face cuts are detailed. 

At the same time, a group of moderate House Democrats is preparing to help rescue McCarthy should he forge a bipartisan deal to avert a US default that touches off a revolt by ultra-conservatives.

The offer is purely hypothetical at the moment, but at least 10 Democrats stand ready to cross party lines to help him retain his post as speaker if Republican hard-liners try to oust him in the aftermath of a debt-limit deal, according Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who is involved in the effort. 

–With assistance from Billy House, Alexandra Harris and Christopher Condon.

(Updates with comments from Yellen and GOP negotiator beginning with second paragraph)

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