"Pretty troubling": Progressives raise concerns over White House comments on spending cuts

The United States is barreling towards "catastrophic debt default," but what costs will get cut?

Published May 15, 2023 3:00AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

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After meeting with congressional leaders earlier this week as the U.S. barrels toward a catastrophic debt default, President Joe Biden said that "we should be cutting spending," a remark that fueled concerns among progressives that the White House is preparing to cede to at least some Republican demands in exchange for a deal to lift the debt ceiling.

President Joe Biden has said repeatedly that he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling, and that the arguably unconstitutional limit must be raised without any preconditions.

But the president has also expressed openness to budget negotiations with House Republicans, who are using the threat of default as leverage to push for steep cuts to federal nutrition assistance, Medicaid, and other key government programs.

Biden insists the debt limit and budget talks are separate, but as Vox's Andrew Prokop noted Wednesday, the president is "negotiating before the GOP has released" the debt ceiling hostage.

Speaking to reporters at the White House on Tuesday after meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Biden said that he "made clear... that default is not an option."

But the president added that he also "made it clear that we can cut spending and cut the deficit."

Biden offered several examples of what he would prefer to cut, such as "tax subsidies for Big Oil companies" and prescription drug costs in Medicare—budget reforms that progressives support.

House Republicans, though, are pushing for far steeper and broader cuts to government spending, specifically demanding a cap on federal spending at fiscal year 2022 levels. Such a cap would entail steep cuts to critical government agencies and programs, particularly if the Pentagon budget is shielded.

While Biden has publicly rejected that GOP demand, Reuters reported Thursday that "White House officials acknowledge that they must accept some spending cuts or strict caps on future spending if they are to strike a deal."

Lindsay Owens, executive director of the Groundwork Collaborative, wrote Thursday that Biden's remarks this week and growing talk of a deal on spending caps are "pretty troubling."

Owens suggested the current negotiations are beginning to look like "2011-light," a reference to the last time the GOP used the debt ceiling as leverage to enact painful spending cuts. Biden, who was then serving as vice president, was the White House's chief negotiator during that standoff, which culminated in austerity legislation that badly hampered the U.S. recovery from the Great Recession.

In a statement to The Washington Post on Thursday, Owens said that Biden "should not give in to hostage-taking."

Instead, Owens added, he should "follow the lead of the majority of Americans who vastly prefer bringing in revenue through tax increases on the rich rather than making harmful spending cuts."

The president was previously scheduled to sit down with congressional leaders again on Friday, but the meeting was postponed until early next week as staffers for the White House and lawmakers continue to exchange proposals to avoid a default, which would wipe out millions of jobs and potentially spark a global economic crisis.

The Treasury Department recently warned that the debt ceiling could be breached as soon as June 1.

It's far from clear whether Biden's recent comments and signals emerging from the White House indicate a substantive concession to the House GOP's crusade for spending cuts.

But as talks continue with little public evidence of progress, observers are increasingly voicing alarm over the possibility of a deal that includes victories for House Republicans who are eager to boot millions of people off of safety net programs.

"It increasingly seems like the White House has decided to cave and is trying to slowly acclimate people to it, so there's no abrupt blink followed by shock and outrage," Brian Beutler, editor-in-chief of Crooked Media, warned Thursday, pointing to the Reuters reporting. "Just slowly increasing resignation. Pretty pathetic."

Slate's Alex Sammon similarly called the White House's seeming hints at spending concessions to Republicans "a horrific development," particularly "after Republicans routinely raised the debt ceiling under Trump" and "after Democrats had a trifecta for two years and could've raised it any time."

By Jake Johnson

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