WASHINGTON — House lawmakers streamed down the steps of the Capitol building Thursday morning like schoolkids who just completed final exams, except their work was nowhere near done.
As they rushed to catch flights home ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, lawmakers were on the verge of failing their biggest assignment this year: raising the national debt limit to avoid an economic catastrophe.
While a small team of Republican negotiators remained in the Capitol to try to hammer out a deal with President Biden, House GOP leaders sent lawmakers home until June 5 — four days after a government default could hit. The long-planned recess, though, came with the condition that they must return within 24 hours if an agreement is reached. The Senate had already adjourned with a similar condition at the end of last week.
But even with a report Thursday night of a potential breakthrough, the homework for Republicans and Democrats over the long weekend appeared clear: lay the groundwork with the public to blame the other side if talks ultimately break down and a default ensues.
Asked if they should be leaving without resolving the debt limit, now at $31.4 trillion, Representative Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat, paused in the bright sunshine at the top of the Capitol steps and said, “Hell no!”
“We’ve got to continue to tell the truth. Republicans are holding the global economy hostage,” Bowman said. “They’re talking about spending but they’re not talking about revenue and all of their cuts will take food out of the mouths of children. Period.”
And down near the bottom of the steps, Representative Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican, blamed Democrats. He noted they control the Senate and have failed to approve any increase in the debt limit while House Republicans passed one last month. That bill had major spending cuts that make it a nonstarter for Biden and Democrats.
Donalds deflected talk of potential defections by conservatives if House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reaches a deal with Biden that backtracks on those cuts.
“I don’t know what’s going to pass the Senate. They’re not even here,” he told a knot of reporters. One quickly responded, “But you guys aren’t going to be here either. You’re about to leave right now.”
With a week to go before a devastating default that could hit as early as June 1, the Capitol was as quiet as summer vacation much of Thursday. The Senate, as Donalds pointed out, was not in session. And after two midmorning votes, House members were released for the 10-day recess.
Most Republicans quickly bolted. But Democrats seized on the decision by McCarthy to adjourn, or “to get out of town before sundown” in the words of House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries. For several hours, a parade of Democrats marched to the House floor to give short speeches hammering Republicans for failing to raise the debt limit and accusing them of wanting a default to damage Biden’s reelection chances.
“Unless we give in to devastating cuts, they will push us into a devastating default,” Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, who helped organize the effort as House Democratic whip, said in one of those speeches. “It’s the American people who will suffer: teachers, seniors, kids, families, veterans, the hungry, the sick.”
House Democrats tried to seize the public narrative, even as some left open whether they would support a deal agreed to by Biden that includes unpalatable spending cuts.
While Biden has largely been silent during negotiations this week, McCarthy and his deputies have filled the information void. They’ve spoken frequently with the media to make their case that deep spending cuts are needed in exchange for a debt limit increase.
“Every American goes through this. If they have a credit card and it hits the limit [do] you just keep raising the limit until you owe more on it than you make in an entire year?” McCarthy told Fox News on Thursday. “Wouldn’t you look at how you spend your money and curb your spending?”
But Democrats said Republicans refuse to consider tax increases on the wealthy and big corporations to help reduce the annual federal budget deficit. Instead, Republicans want major cuts to domestic spending and to add additional work requirements on federal aid programs, such as food stamps, that help poorer Americans.
Democrats gathered some recipients of those programs outside the Capitol on Thursday to make their point. About a dozen stood holding signs that read “Don’t Default on Women & Families” while lawmakers took turns blasting Republicans.
“What is .00000019 percent of $32 trillion?” Representative Gwen Moore, a Wisconsin Democrat, said of the budgetary impact from one change Republicans want to make to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. “That’s the savings they get for stepping on the heads of women and children.”
But while Democrats tried to take advantage of the Republican departures, the real action, if there was any, was taking place in McCarthy’s private suite of offices near the Capitol rotunda where his negotiators were holed up. Reporters and photographers quickly swarmed when one, Representative Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, emerged around lunchtime.
Asked if he was headed to the White House, McHenry said he was only going to get something to eat. Then he stopped for a minute.
“I know you all want more information but everything’s . . . sensitive at this moment and there’s a balance that has to be struck and there’s a lot more work that has to be done,” he said. “But that work that we’re doing centers in on a shorter and shorter array of issues.”
McHenry wouldn’t say if he was optimistic.
“I’m not pessimistic,” he said.
About an hour later in the White House Rose Garden, Biden sounded somewhat hopeful. He said the talks “were making progress,” as he briefly addressed the potential crisis before he announcing the nomination of General Charles Q. Brown Jr. as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Under my administration, we’ve already cut the deficit by $1.7 trillion in our first two years,” Biden said, although those savings are because a period of extraordinary spending on the pandemic has ended. “But Speaker McCarthy and I have a very different view of who should bear the burden of additional efforts to get our fiscal house in order. I don’t believe the whole burden should fall on the backs of middle-class and working-class Americans. My House Republican friends disagree.”
Then on Thursday night, The New York Times reported that negotiators were closing in on a deal to raise the debt limit for two years. The agreement would cap discretionary spending for two years but would allow for increased funding for the military and some veterans programs, though details still needed to be worked out, according to people familiar with the talks who requested anonymity.
Bowman and other Democrats said they want Biden speaking out more on the debt limit as the negotiations grind on and Washington slows for a long holiday weekend that could simply be the calm before the storm.
“We need all hands on deck, man,” Bowman said as he, too, prepared to head home to his district in the New York City area to spread the Democrats’ message.
Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @JimPuzzanghera.