House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s position that cuts to Medicare and Social Security are not on the table in exchange for a debt ceiling increase has drawn skepticism from his primary negotiating partner: The White House.
McCarthy is set to meet with President Joe Biden on Wednesday in a face-to-face that has already been subject to positioning and political messaging, moves that both sides hope will shape the fight to raise the debt limit over the next few months. White House officials have been steadfast that there will be no negotiations on the matter while House Republicans have framed Wednesday’s meeting as the beginning of debt ceiling talks.
Biden, asked by CNN what his message to McCarthy would be in that meeting, said it would be “show me your budget and I’ll show you mine.”
The statement carried echoes of the push by White House officials and congressional Democrats to force Republicans to put a plan on the table – even as they insist there will be no negotiations on the matter.
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In the absence of a concrete plan, which Republicans have broadly said will focus on spending cuts, White House officials have pressed for the political upper hand in calling into question McCarthy’s commitment to leave Medicare and Social Security untouched given the position of some members in the conference.
“As they vote for even more tax welfare for the rich, Republicans across the House conference are demanding cuts to Medicare and Social Security as ransom for not triggering an economic crisis,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates told CNN. “Yesterday Speaker McCarthy claimed he opposed this but then immediately winked his approval for Medicare and Social Security cuts all the same, under the guise of ‘strengthening’ the programs. Is that their only plan? We have yet to see another.”
Bates was referencing McCarthy’s appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” where the California Republican said he wanted “to find a reasonable and responsible way that we can lift the debt ceiling, but take control of this runaway spending.”
Asked about Social Security and Medicare, McCarthy said he wanted to “take those off the table,” but also referenced a broad House GOP policy agenda laid out before the midterm elections that secured his narrow majority.
“If you read our Commitment to America, all we talk about is strengthening Medicare and Social Security,” McCarthy said. “I know the president doesn’t want to look at it, but we have to make sure we strengthen those.”
McCarthy’s pledge, which is backed by former President Donald Trump, provides a window into the complex political dynamics House Republicans confront as they press for negotiations while still working to coalesce around a proposal to put on the table.
White House officials have closely monitored – and wasted no time responding – to House Republican preferences they see as both non-starters on the policy front and politically advantageous.
In a memo to “interested parties” dated Monday that was written by National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young, Biden’s top economic advisers said the president intends to pose two questions to McCarthy on Wednesday when the two men meet: Whether McCarthy will commit to the US not defaulting on its financial obligations and when McCarthy and House Republicans will release their budget.
Deese and Young went on to cast McCarthy as an “outlier,” pointing to previous bipartisan efforts to raise the debt limit, including under the previous administration and quoting a 1987 radio address on the matter from Republican President Ronald Reagan.
Biden, the officials wrote, “will seek a clear commitment from Speaker McCarthy that default – as well as proposals from members of his Caucus for default by another name – is unacceptable.”
They added, “President Biden will ask Speaker McCarthy to publicly assure the American people and the rest of the world that the United States will, as always, honor all of its financial obligations.”
Deese and Young called on McCarthy and House Republicans to “transparently lay out to the American people their fiscal and economic proposals in the normal budget process” as the White House has previously questioned McCarthy’s commitment to leaving Social Security and Medicare untouched.
The White House has closely coordinated with congressional Democrats in the effort to push Republicans to put unveil their own proposal, even as they’ve maintained a united front on the leadership level in opposition to any actual negotiations.
More broadly, there remain significant questions about whether House Republicans can find the necessary 218 votes for anything given the strident opposition held by some in the conference about raising the debt ceiling at all.
Still, the focus on Medicare and Social Security even as McCarthy has moved to take changes off the table underscores the view inside the White House of the political salience of the programs.
White House officials point to the framing of “strengthening” the programs as a euphemism for structural changes they oppose. Absent a clear House Republican proposal, that has become a central line of attack in a debate that is still in its early stages – with potentially dramatic consequences ahead.
“Now, as they vote for even more tax welfare for the rich, Republicans across the House Conference are demanding cuts to Medicare and Social Security as ransom for not triggering an economic crisis,” Bates said.
CNN’s MJ Lee and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.