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Biden and congressional leaders will face off in a high stakes debt ceiling meeting

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

President Biden and congressional leaders will have a very high-stakes meeting next week ahead of a June 1 deadline. That's the day when the country could breach the debt ceiling. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he'll be at the meeting but thinks a deal will ultimately be up to Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: It should be clear to the administration that the Senate is not a relevant player this time. They have got to have a measure that can pass the House. How does it pass the House? It has to have the support of the speaker, and I'm behind the speaker.

MARTÍNEZ: McCarthy and other House Republicans have said they won't address the debt limit unless they get significant cuts in future government spending in return. NPR's congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales joins us this morning.

Claudia, Leader McConnell was a key player in previous standoffs over the debt limit. But now he says the Biden White House will have to find a deal with McCarthy. What does this mean for the negotiations?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Right. McConnell repeatedly told reporters this would be the message he would take to the president - that he needs to negotiate with McCarthy. Biden and McConnell have a long-running relationship. It goes back to their days working together in the Senate. And McConnell helped clear the way for Democrats to address the debt limit in another faceoff in 2021. But McCarthy is a much less familiar opponent for Biden on these negotiations, and he represents a conference that includes extreme wings of the Republican Party. And House Republicans have significant demands here, which are detailed in a bill they passed last week pushing for big spending cuts and policy changes.

MARTÍNEZ: And how are Democrats responding to these plans?

GRISALES: Democrats have reiterated that this Republican bill is dead on arrival in the Senate and that Congress should separately pass a so-called clean debt limit bill to lift this ceiling without any preconditions. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer talked about this to reporters.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: So the time to discuss those cuts is not hostage-taking with the debt ceiling. That is too dangerous. The time to discuss it is afterwards, as we usually do in the budget and appropriations process.

GRISALES: The Republican bill proposes cuts in exchange for lifting the debt limit by 1.5 trillion or by March of next year, whichever happens first. And Democrats are ramping up their messaging with Senate hearings focused on their concerns with this legislation, with a first hearing on Thursday focused on how proposed GOP cuts could hurt individuals who rely on federal assistance for access to food.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So at the moment, no clear solution, even with that deadline - what? - less than a month away. So do Democrats see any alternatives to bypassing GOP opposition?

GRISALES: They do, but there's mainly long shots that they're looking at. For example, we're seeing Democrats in both chambers lining up procedural moves to try to vote on this clean debt limit bill. Schumer has started the legislative process in the Senate for that, but it would need Republican support to move forward. And as we heard at the top, Senate Republicans are sticking with McCarthy for now.

In the House, Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said in a Dear Colleague letter that House Democrats have a legislative vehicle available now to push such a bill forward past Republican leadership. But it would require a petition with all Democrats and five Republicans on board. And right now, there's no sign any GOP members would agree. That leaves all eyes on this meeting next week for what many hope will be a breakthrough to avert those financial default worries for the country.

MARTÍNEZ: That is NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales.

Thanks.

GRISALES: Thank you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.