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Members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus on the plan for raising the debt ceiling

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Pressure is growing for President Biden to negotiate to raise the nation's debt ceiling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: The longer President Biden waits to be sensible, to find an agreement, the more likely it becomes that this administration will bumble into the first default in our nation's history.

SIMON: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaking this week. And next week, he plans to introduce a bill that would raise the debt limit to $1.5 trillion, but it would cut spending on some of the president's priorities, including COVID relief, green energy programs and student debt cancellation. The president wants the debt ceiling raised with no conditions. Meanwhile, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus is offering its own plan. We're joined now by co-chair Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat and caucus member who happens to be traveling in Ghana now. Representative Gottheimer, thanks for being with us.

JOSH GOTTHEIMER: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And Mike Lawler, a New York Republican who joins us now. Representative Lawler, thank you for being with us.

MIKE LAWLER: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And, Mr. Lawler, let me address this first question to you. If that Republican plan comes up for a vote next week, will you vote for it?

LAWLER: Yes. You know, my three parameters throughout this debt ceiling negotiation have been very simple. The president must negotiate with the speaker. We have to cut spending over the long term, and we must not default. And I think the plan outlined by Speaker McCarthy certainly creates an opportunity to start the negotiations. The president thus far has refused to do so. And so I think, you know, this is an opportunity to put our cards on the table and move the conversation because at the end of the day, we have an obligation to find compromise and to advance forward a solution here to not only lift our nation's debt limit, but ultimately get us on the right fiscal path.

SIMON: Congressman Gottheimer, what do you hope the president will do?

GOTTHEIMER: First and foremost, the key here is that we not default. So we have to put the whole question of the debt ceiling and raising the debt ceiling aside. And then we also can, at the same time, address our longer-term fiscal health issues. And that's acceptable to do both, and it's a false choice to say that we can't do both. And what we want is our leadership and the president to sit at the table and work this through. Listen. The proposal that Kevin McCarthy put up, you know, I think even if it passes out of the House, will not go anywhere in the Senate. So whenever they pass that, if they do, it'll be dead on arrival, and we'll be back to the same spot. And how do we make sure that we keep sitting down, which is what our caucus believes in, sitting down at the table and getting a solution that achieves both objectives, making sure the debt ceiling is not an issue and also dealing with our long-term fiscal health issues? And that's what our proposal is really about.

SIMON: What about the call, Congressman Gottheimer, for the creation of a separate fiscal commission? Hasn't that been tried before and hasn't worked out?

GOTTHEIMER: I think in this case it's different. And what we've recommended is actually putting a fiscal commission to set that up and suspend the debt ceiling - in other words, take that off the table while this commission does its work, experts, economists come back and make a set of recommendations to us. We must address some of these long-term fiscal health issues. And so I think the commission is a great way to take some of the politics out of this. And let's be honest. What's happened here is you're seeing both sides volley back and forth and play political games with the fiscal future of our country, including playing around with the debt ceiling, which would literally put the full faith and credit of the United States at risk. Only the government of China will win if we send our economy off the cliff and downgrade our credit and put everyone's 401(k)s and savings on the line.

SIMON: How serious is any discussion about the nation's debt if Social Security and Medicare, biggest sources of spending, are apparently off the table? Congressman Lawler, do you want to take that?

LAWLER: Sure. I mean, look. I've said from the very beginning that we need to protect Social Security and Medicare. As it stands right now, both programs are going to have serious challenges over the next decade. And I think part of what Josh is alluding to with the creation of a fiscal commission is to look at what we need to do long-term in a serious, sober and bipartisan way to address the challenges to both of those programs. I think in the immediate, we cannot default. We have to pay our previous debts incurred.

SIMON: Do both of you worry that given today's fractious political environment, even as you say default can't occur, in fact, it can and will occur if a majority of people in Congress decide that they want to vote in accord with their own best political interests? Won't they?

LAWLER: In all of my conversations, I've not spoken to one person who thinks default would be a good idea. So I do not think at the end of the day that we are going to be in a situation where we default. I think, unfortunately, the politics sometimes drags this out in a way that is unnecessary and unhelpful. But I think we will certainly get to a solution. And as, you know, I think we're showing here in this conversation, people like Josh and I are very focused on finding solutions and common ground and solving problems.

SIMON: Representative Gottheimer?

GOTTHEIMER: Mike is spot on, and - you know, which is why you want reasonable voices on the table. Am I concerned? Deeply concerned. Do I believe we've got enough people who are reasonable, who understand the gravity? Yes. But that doesn't mean, to your point, that we can just hope that it happens. We've got to actually work to make it happen, which is what we're doing. And my hope and confidence is that in these next weeks, given how this could be a summer - early summer issue, like, a June issue, that everybody sits at the table until we figure this out because we can't afford not to.

SIMON: Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat, and Republican Congressman Mike Lawler, both members of the Problem Solvers Caucus. Thanks so much for being with us.

GOTTHEIMER: Thanks for having us.

LAWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.