A bipartisan group of House centrists is floating a fallback plan to prevent a government default later in the year as the debt ceiling battle between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has yielded no breakthroughs.
The Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 64 moderate lawmakers split evenly between the parties, has been quietly crafting a budget strategy — short- and long-term — since at least February, when the debt ceiling debate began in earnest.
A “framework” of that proposal, released on Wednesday, reveals a bare-bones outline of the group’s fiscal wish list, which features a suspension of the debt limit through the end of the calendar year — to stave off a government default while Congress negotiates its 2024 budget — and the creation of an outside commission designed to rein in deficit spending and reduce the country’s $31.5 trillion debt over the long haul.
“The debt ceiling and debt crisis demand a two-party solution,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), one of the Problem Solvers co-chairs, said Wednesday in a statement. “We must never allow our nation to default on our debt, we must never put our nation’s full faith and credit at risk, and we must insist on responsible budget reform measures.”
The proposal, first reported by Politico, arrives amid an extended impasse between Biden, who is demanding a “clean” debt limit hike without extraneous provisions, and McCarthy, who is warning that Republicans won’t raise the government’s borrowing cap without the Democrats’ commitment to steep cuts in federal spending.
Without congressional action, the Treasury Department has said it will lack the funds to pay all of its obligations as early as June, which would the first default in U.S. history. Economists have warned that the economic impact would be devastating, here and abroad.
“At this point, the two sides, McCarthy and Biden, have their initial opening positions,” one member of the Problem Solvers said Tuesday. “We’re looking for a way to bridge the gap.”
McCarthy this week amplified the GOP’s position, first in a speech Monday on Wall Street, and then behind closed doors before the Republican conference on Tuesday in the Capitol. The details of McCarthy’s deficit-cutting plan remain in flux, however, as GOP leaders are scrambling to unite the diverse Republican conference behind a specific package. The hope, they say, is to vote on their proposal next week, though Democratic leaders in the Senate are certain to dismiss it, leaving the sides no closer to an agreement as the default deadline inches closer.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), another member of the Problem Solvers, said the group’s plan is not meant to encroach on the current negotiations, but it merely represents a backstop in the event those talks falter.
“First we’ll give our leadership — Hakeem [Jeffries], the president — space so they can negotiate,” Cuellar said. “Right now they’re saying, ‘No, no, no. Clean bill.’ The Republicans are saying something else.
“So we’ll give them a little space, but we’ve got something ready to go.”
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), another Problem Solvers member, said he’s hoping McCarthy’s strategy will bring Biden to accept some level of discretionary cuts, in the near term, and win the president’s support for a fiscal commission to tackle deficit spending — including funding for Social Security and Medicare — over a longer window.
“At some point, we’ve got to negotiate,” Bacon said. “We’re not going to just blindly just raise the debt ceiling when the president himself has opposed it three times when he was a senator.”
Biden, so far, hasn’t budged, warning Tuesday that the Republicans’ plan would devastate federal programs relied upon by millions of working-class Americans — cuts he’s vowing to oppose.
“He threatened to become the first Speaker to default on our national debt,” Biden said of McCarthy.
As the debate heats up, Biden’s Democratic allies in Congress — even the most moderate members — appear to be united behind his demand for a clean debt-ceiling hike, at least for now. They’re pointing to the trillions of dollars of debt piled up under Republican presidents, including Donald Trump, and wondering why GOP leaders weren’t complaining about deficit spending then.
“I’m open to considering opportunities to consider looking at the deficit — separately — for the purposes of the fiscal integrity of our nation, for the solvency of Social Security and Medicare,” Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), another Problem Solvers member, said. “But the ‘King of Debt,’ as he liked to call himself, President Trump, created 25 percent of the current deficit that we’re experiencing.
“I didn’t hear Republicans raising all sorts of concerns about their president.”
Under the Problem Solvers plan, the debt ceiling would be suspended through Dec. 31, allowing Congress more time to negotiate a 2024 budget and prevent a government shutdown on Oct. 1. The group wants those talks to include “deficit stabilization” in discretionary spending over “the mid-term.”
The centrists also want to reform the rules underlying the budget process to ensure all spending bills move by “regular order” through the various committees, allowing the time for a hearty debate and individual votes on each appropriations measure, in lieu of the giant omnibus packages that have become routine.
The group is also calling for an annual report, conducted by the U.S. comptroller general, on “the fiscal state of the nation,” and a second “mid-year report,” submitted by the president, on the national budget.
Lastly, the Problem Solvers are urging the creation of a fiscal committee to examine the nation’s finances and provide recommendations for cutting deficits over the long term. Leaders of both parties would have a hand in appointing the committee members, who would be empowered to “consider every means to address ballooning debt and deficit and put the country on a sustainable path.” The commission’s report would be due by the end of 2024.
That idea is hardly new. Congress has, on several occasions over the past 15 years, created bipartisan commissions designed to shore up the nation’s finances. Some of those panels, like the so-called supercommittee of 2011, have featured sitting lawmakers. Others, like the Simpson-Bowles Commission of 2010, consisted of outside experts.
None of them, however, have been successful in forcing Congress to rein in deficit spending. And the Biden administration has already sent signals this year that the idea is dead-on-arrival in the White House.
“The American people want more jobs and lower costs, not a death panel for Medicare and Social Security,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates told Bloomberg News earlier in the year.