For President Joe Biden, his federal budget is a statement of values — the dollars and cents of a governing philosophy that believes the wealthy and large corporations should pay more taxes to help stem deficits and lift Americans toward middle class stability
In the view of his chief congressional critics led by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the budget is also the arena where they intend to challenge the president with values of their own — slashing the social safety net, trimming support for Ukraine and ending the so-called “woke” policies rejected by Republicans.
It’s the blueprint for a summer showdown as Biden confronts Republicans over the raising the debt ceiling to pay off the nation’s accrued balances, a familiar battle that will define the president and the political parties ahead of the 2024 election.
“I’m ready to meet with the speaker any time — tomorrow, if he has his budget,” Biden said while rolling out his own $6.8 trillion spending proposal Thursday in Philadelphia.
“Lay it down. Tell me what you want to do. I’ll show you what I want to do. See what we can agree on,” said Biden, the Democratic president egging on the Republican leader.
But McCarthy, in his first term as House speaker, is nowhere near being ready to present a GOP proposal at the negotiating table to start talks in earnest with the White House.
While Republicans newly empowered in the House have bold ideas about rolling back government spending to fiscal 2022 levels and putting the federal budget on a path to balance within the next decade, they have no easy ideas for how to meet those goals.
McCarthy declined this week to say when House Republicans intend to produce their own proposal, blaming their delays on Biden’s own tardiness in rolling out his plan.
“We want to analyze his budget based upon the question as to where can we find common ground,” McCarthy said. “So we’ll analyze his budget and then we’ll get to work.”
Squaring off, it’s a fresh take on the budget battles of a decade ago when Biden, as vice president, confronted an earlier generation of “tea party” House Republicans eager to cut the debt load and balance budgets.
What’s changed in the decade since the last big budget showdown in Washington is the solidifying of the GOP’s MAGA wing, inspired by the Trump-era Make American Great Again slogan, to turn the fiscal battles into cultural wars. The nation’s total debt load has almost doubled during that time to $31 trillion.
Beyond the dollars and cents, the new era of House Republicans see the coming debt ceiling fight as a battle for their very existence — a test of their mandate in the new House majority to push back against liberals in Washington.
“There’s going to be a whole bunch of noise, and then everybody will push up to the brink and then someone’s gonna blink — I don’t intend to,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, an influential member of the hard-right Freedom Caucus.
As pressure mounts on McCarthy, the president is trying to steal some thunder as he rolled out a proposal this week that spotlights deficit reductions that are a centerpiece of GOP goals.
Biden’s approach is a turn-around from the start of the year when he refused to negotiate with Republicans, demanding Congress send him a straightforward bill to raise the debt limit. At the time, the president wouldn’t entertain a conversation about spending changes McCarthy committed to as part of his campaign to become speaker.
The White House’s budget plan would cut the deficit by $2.9 trillion over 10 years, a rebuttal to GOP criticism that Biden’s deficit spending to address the pandemic has fueled inflation and hurt the economy.
Speaking to union members in Philadelphia, Biden said McCarthy needed to follow his lead and publicly release his own numbers so that they can negotiate “line by line.”
With his budget, Biden showed the math of how he would lower the trajectory of the national debt. Yet his approach to fiscal responsibility is unacceptable to Republicans, since it would require $4.7 trillion in higher taxes on corporations and people making more than $400,000.
The president also wants an additional $2.5 trillion in spending on programs such as an expanded child tax credit that would improve family finances.
“When the middle class does well, the poor have a way up and the wealthy still do very well,” the president said as he framed the showdown as a difference of principles.
By refusing to raise taxes, the Republicans in the House are relying almost exclusively on reductions to bring budgets into balance. It’s a painful, potentially devastating endeavor, inflicting cuts on programs Americans depend on in their communities. Republicans cannot say when their budget will be ready.
“We’re getting close,” said Rep. Jody Arrington, R-Texas, the new chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Because McCarthy has yet to release his budget, Biden has toured the country and talked to audiences about past Republican plans to cut Social Security and Medicare.
McCarthy insists reductions to the Medicare and Social Security entitlement programs that millions of America’s seniors and others depend on are off the table — and Republicans howled in protest during Biden’s State of the Union address to Congress last month when the president claimed otherwise.
But by shielding those programs from cuts and opposing any tax increases, GOP lawmakers would need crippling slashes to the rest of government spending that could offend voters going into the 2024 elections.
The chamber’s Freedom Caucus is eyeing reductions to supplemental disability insurance, food stamps and fresh work requirements on some people receiving government aid.
Roy, the Freedom Caucus member, outlined some $700 billion in reductions that could be banked by reversing Biden’s student loan forgiveness program, clawing back almost $100 billion in unspent COVID-19 relief and rolling back spending to fiscal 2022 levels.
But the conservative caucus with its few dozen members is just one constituency McCarthy must balance as he tries to cobble together his ranks. The much larger Republican Study Committee is expected to roll out its ideas in April and other GOP caucuses have their own priorities.
McCarthy believes he has won a first round in the budget battles by pushing Biden to negotiate over the debt ceiling. But now the speaker faces the daunting challenge of bringing his own GOP plan to the table.
“The House Republican budget plan is in the witness protection program,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the chamber’s Democratic leader. “It’s in hiding.”