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After months of rhetoric, Biden and congressional leaders met to discuss debt ceiling

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Joe Biden and the top four congressional leaders finally sat down together to talk about raising the debt ceiling.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After the meeting, both the president and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said they were far apart. We really don't know what a U.S. default would do to the global economy, although experts expect it to be devastating. So the leaders agreed to meet again on Friday to keep talking.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is with us now with the latest. Good morning, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Other than agreeing to meet again, did you see signs of any movement?

KEITH: Well, White House and congressional staff are now set to work through possibilities for the next couple of days, and that's a sign that there's more urgency, at least, than there has been for the last couple of months. But there is still a fundamental disagreement. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy says Republicans won't agree to raise the debt limit unless the president and Democrats agree to significant spending cuts, and President Biden says he won't allow the full faith and credit of the United States to be held hostage and says that the conversation about spending cuts needs to be separated from the debt ceiling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There's a lot of politics, posturing and gamesmanship, and it's going to continue for a while. But I am squarely focused on what matters, and we're getting to work.

MARTIN: So is defaulting on the debt still on the table?

KEITH: Well, coming out of the meeting, the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that the U.S. won't default - never has, never will. The two Democratic congressional leaders said the same. And McCarthy said he didn't want it to happen. But he didn't, strictly speaking, take it off the table because, I mean, that is the leverage in this fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: I'm hoping that the next two weeks are different. I'm hoping this president understands, as the leader of this nation, that you can't sit back and hold the country hostage. You can't be so extreme in your views that you're not going to negotiate.

KEITH: So they are in the accusing-each-other-of-taking-hostages phase of this negotiation. The president's position remains that he is happy to talk separately about ideas for cutting the deficit by raising taxes and cutting spending. One of the spending cuts that McCarthy has suggested is clawing back some unspent COVID relief dollars. And Biden said yesterday that they could look at that, which is not a no.

MARTIN: So there have been some other ideas tossed around about avoiding default without making a deal and raising the debt ceiling. Is the president seriously considering any of those?

KEITH: Well, he was asked whether he might invoke the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which says that the validity of the U.S. debt shall not be questioned. The idea would be that the government would just continue paying its bills even if the debt ceiling hasn't been lifted. And Biden said that he is considering it as an idea but for the future. He said there isn't enough time now to do it because it'd get tied up in court.

MARTIN: So President Biden is scheduled to travel to New York today. What's his message going to be?

KEITH: Well, he is traveling to the congressional district of Mike Lawler, a vulnerable Republican who won in 2022 in a district that Biden carried in 2020. According to the White House, Biden's message will be that Republicans are demanding cuts that hurt teachers, veterans, law enforcement. Lawler will be there, too, and he says his message will be that the president and Republicans need to negotiate.

MARTIN: That is NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thank you so much.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.