Inside the debt ceiling negotiations on Capitol Hill

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On Capitol Hill this week, the delicate talks to avoid government debt default took place via middle-of-the-night video calls, marathon meetings in a lavish conference room, and at least one early-morning bike ride.

At the White House, evening tour groups were diverted from the West Wing because President Biden was in the Oval Office with his chief of staff and other advisers, who needed his prompt feedback.

But all the talk has so far failed to lead to a deal to raise the country’s debt limit, raising fears of a potential catastrophic bankruptcy that could shake financial markets, send interest rates soaring and end in a downward revision of the country’s creditworthiness.

Negotiators got some breathing room Friday afternoon, when Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said the United States would run out of money to pay its bills on time by June 5 — a slight extension of the earlier June 1 deadline.

But a week of frantic and ‘productive’ meetings has left those trapped in the negotiating room with a distinct sense that the days and nights have all run together.

“Here we are, night after night after night,” said Representative Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, one of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s top lieutenants.

“Everyone wants a detail on this,” Mr McHenry said, as a crowd of reporters demanded to know whether the country was going to fall into an economic disaster or not. “Everyone wants a tweet. I want an agreement that changes the trajectory of the country.”

As he spoke, the normally gregarious congressman telegraphed his fatigue in the smallest of ways: The bow tie he wears every day was gone.

Mr. McCarthy, on a bike ride Friday morning with one of his key negotiators, Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana, weighed in with the obvious: “We need to make more progress now.”

While Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy have known each other for years and speak of each other in public (usually) respectfully, their relationship until now has not been about finding camaraderie, but about forcing concessions.

“You got two Irish guys who don’t drink,” Mr McHenry joked earlier this week. “That’s a different lineup than Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan,” a reference to Chairman Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., a Democrat, and the Republican president, who also shared an Irish background and were known to drink a beer. drinks.

Mr Biden’s aides have been working around the clock since talks abruptly broke down a week ago, leading to a Republican-mandated “pause” in talks that caught members of the president’s negotiating team by surprise. From Japan, Mr Biden demanded regular updates and ended a scheduled dinner early to get a briefing on the talks. On the last day of his trip, Mr Biden’s advisers in Washington woke up at 4:30 am to update him via video.

Since then, negotiators on both sides have met several times in a conference room on the House side of Capitol Hill, beneath a fresco painted by the artist Constantino Brumidi depicting “a retired Roman general called back to defend his city, a classic event that is often seen as paralleling the life of George Washington,” states the Capitol’s architect’s website.

Descriptions of the gatherings themselves have not been nearly as colorful. Mr McHenry this week expressed dismay at all the people who pretended to know what was happening.

“Everyone wants to have guesses or want some selfish reading about what we’re talking about, but there’s only a few of us in the room,” he said.

Mr. Biden’s negotiating team was led by Shalanda D. Young, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Steve Ricchetti, the adviser to the president, who has been Mr. Biden’s liaison for matters since his days as vice president. Capitol Hill. president. Ricchetti has been traveling back and forth along Pennsylvania Avenue all week, between meetings at the White House and meetings with Republicans, according to a person familiar with his schedule.

During the negotiations, Mr. Ricchetti was the only member of the team authorized to make strategic decisions on behalf of Mr. Biden, according to two people familiar with the conversations. (He is also one of the few people authorized to answer the president’s phone on behalf of Mr. Biden when they are together.)

The group also includes Louisa Terrell, the director of legislative affairs. Both she and Mrs. Young have deep relationships on Capitol Hill; According to several former administration officials, Ms. Young was a longtime staff member of the House Committee on Appropriations and has earned respect from Republicans and Democrats alike. Ms. Terrell’s experience on Capitol Hill dates back to Mr. Biden’s Senate office.

According to several people involved, their experience will be key to continuing to sell members for any possible deal. When Capitol Hill negotiators traveled to the White House during the week, they met in a conference room near Ms. Young’s office suite in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

At the White House, Mr. Biden receives daily updates from Jeffrey D. Zients, his chief of staff. Mr. Zients has not been as involved in the external negotiations, well-known people say, but he directs the strategy that directs these meetings from the White House. He is in regular contact with New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the Majority Leader, and Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the House’s top Democrat. (Mr Schumer said in a statement that the president’s negotiators are “available if we have any questions.”)

Mr. Biden also works closely with Bruce Reed, a senior policy adviser who was Mr. Biden’s chief of staff during the debt ceiling talks in 2011 and 2013, and Lael Brainard, his top economic adviser.

Mr Biden, who does not believe in public negotiations – as he has said several times since becoming president – has remained silent except to say on Thursday that he and Mr McCarthy “have a very different view of who bears the burden should bear extra efforts to get our fiscal house in order.”

As such, the Capitol negotiators have gained something of a celebrity status among reporters, with scrums from dozens of journalists chasing them and hanging on their every word for any insight into the talks.

Non-reporters were less enthusiastic: When a mob of reporters chased Mr. Graves out of the Capitol on Friday afternoon, huddling to get within earshot, one onlooker said, “I don’t even know who that is.”

Mr McCarthy has gone to talk to the media several times a day, often repeating the same topics of conversation, but he never passed up an opportunity to take his side to the public. (On at least two occasions, he’s walked into the middle of a reporter’s live TV performance, put on a big smile, and started talking to the people watching at home.)

Mr. Graves, a media-shy Republican from Louisiana, attempted to meet members of Louisiana State University’s women’s national basketball championship team on Thursday as reporters followed him looking for some information: “Didn’t you see the speaker? he told a group of journalists at one point, trying to steer them away from him.

Despite all the interest, the House ended its voting for the week on Thursday morning, with most lawmakers happy to leave Washington. Some Democrats were left behind to shame their Republican colleagues for skipping town with impending economic disaster.

“America may become unable to pay our bills and extreme MAGA Republicans have chosen to be out of town before sundown,” Jeffries said from the House floor.

Soon most of the Democrats also left. The country could pay off its debts in just over a week. But first there was Memorial Day weekend.

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