White House, Republicans seek to close US debt-ceiling deal as deadline nears

By Moira Warburton and Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House and congressional Republicans on Thursday are expected to resume negotiations on a deal to raise the government’s $31.4 trillion debt ceiling, with as little as a week remaining until a potential economically catastrophic default.

Democratic President Joe Biden and House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy are at odds over spending, taxes and work requirements for anti-poverty programs. But both sides say they believe they can find common ground after hours-long discussions by their negotiating teams on Wednesday that they characterized as productive.

“We’ll continue to work through this, try to get a solution,” McCarthy, the top Republican in Congress, told reporters after his negotiators returned from a four-hour White House meeting on Wednesday.

Time is running short. The Treasury Department says the United States could run out of money to pay its bills as soon as June 1, seven days from now if the debt ceiling is not raised. A U.S. default could upend global financial markets and push the United States into recession.

Ratings agency Fitch said on Wednesday it had put the United States’ “AAA” credit rating on negative watch, citing increasing political disputes around the country’s debt limit. Fitch last put the United States on negative watch in October 2013.

“The brinkmanship over the debt ceiling, failure of the U.S. authorities to meaningfully tackle medium-term fiscal challenges … and a growing debt burden signal downside risks to U.S. creditworthiness,” Fitch said in its statement on Wednesday.

The months-long standoff has spooked Wall Street, weighing on U.S. stocks and pushing the nation’s cost of borrowing higher.

Congress will need several days to pass any agreement through the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate. Lawmakers regularly need to raise the self-imposed debt limit to cover the cost of spending and tax cuts they have already approved.

Representative Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, said lawmakers in that chamber will get three days to read any debt-ceiling bill before they have to vote on it. In the Senate, any one member can delay action for days.

The House was due to leave Washington on Thursday for a week-long Memorial Day holiday recess, though Scalise warned lawmakers to be ready to be called back to Washington for a vote if necessary.

McCarthy has insisted that any deal must cut discretionary spending next year and cap spending growth in the years to come, to slow the growth of the U.S. debt, now equal to the annual output of the economy.

Biden has offered to freeze spending at current levels next year and proposed several tax increases to help curb the debt.

Credit rating agency Moody’s said it might reassess its top notch rating for the U.S. government if lawmakers fail to reach a deal. A prior debt-ceiling standoff in 2011 prompted rival ratings agency S&P Global to lower its rating.

Lawmakers from both parties are reluctant to compromise. Hardline House Republicans insist that Biden must agree to the sharp spending cuts they passed last month. Some Democrats accuse Republicans of holding the economy hostage to advance an agenda that would otherwise fall short.

“They are looking to waste time, play games and make sure we default because they think that somehow that is going to be a political advantage,” Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Biden spent months saying he would not negotiate on raising the debt limit only to reverse course and begin talks with McCarthy in the last few weeks.

The last time the federal government came this close to default was in 2011, with a similar power divide in Washington – a Democratic president and Senate majority and a Republican-controlled House.

(Additional reporting by David Morgan, Steve Holland, Andrea Shalal, Richard Cowan, and Gram Slattery; writing by Andy Sullivan and Moira Warburton; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)

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