House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) warned Thursday that former President Trump’s recent comments advising Republicans to allow a default have complicated the effort to raise the debt ceiling and prevent an economic crisis.
Jeffries predicted Trump’s remarks would encourage House Republicans to dig in with their demands for steep spending cuts in return for lifting the debt cap — cuts President Biden has refused to include as part of the talks — making it tougher for the parties to secure a deal and prevent an economy-rattling default in the coming weeks.
“It’s unfortunate, because there are a lot of extreme MAGA Republicans in the House right now who share the same position that former President Trump articulated,” Jeffries said during a press briefing in the Capitol.
Jeffries said Biden’s allies on Capitol Hill would stand by the president in opposition to the Republicans’ proposed cuts, which Jeffries warned would devastate low-income families reliant on programs such as Medicaid or food stamps.
“Republicans are saying the other option is to default, [and] that’s exactly what President Trump laid out last night,” Jeffries said. “It’s an inherently unreasonable position.”
Appearing at a CNN town hall in New Hampshire on Wednesday night, Trump counseled Republicans in both chambers to stand firm in their demands for steep cuts as part of the debt ceiling debate, even if it takes the country over the edge of default.
“I say to the Republicans out there, congressmen and senators: If they don’t give you massive cuts, you are going to have to do a default,” Trump said.
Trump predicted such an event would never occur, because Democrats would first “cave” and accept the GOP’s proposed cuts. But he also downplayed the harm a default would have on the economy, suggesting the national debt poses a greater threat while urging Republicans to hold the line in their cost-cutting demands.
“Maybe you have a bad week or a bad day,” Trump said. “But look, you have to cut your costs.”
That position marks a 180-degree reversal of Trump’s actions in office, when he raised the debt ceiling three times in four years, and even went after the leaders of his own party — Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and then-Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — for moving too slowly to get a debt-limit hike to his desk.
Pressed by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, Trump on Wednesday acknowledged the shift, explaining that he’s changed his position for a simple reason.
“Because now I’m not president,” he said.
Asked about Trump’s comments Thursday, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) dodged the question, saying any blame for a default should rest with Biden for refusing to negotiate spending cuts as part of a debt-limit bill. He noted that House Republicans have already passed legislation to raise the government’s borrowing cap, while Democrats who control the Senate have not.
“The only thing I see right now is that the Republicans made sure default is not on the table,” McCarthy told reporters in the Capitol. “We’ve raised the debt limit. The only person talking about default right now is President Biden.”
Other Republican lawmakers are brushing off Trump’s advice, emphasizing that political candidates have different aims — and adopt different tones — than sitting lawmakers seeking compromise on tough issues.
“You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), paraphrasing a famous quote from former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D). “Candidates talk about things differently than people who are trying to get to a deal.”
The months-long impasse has hinged not on whether the sides should negotiate deficit reduction strategies, but in what context those talks should occur.
Behind McCarthy, Republicans have insisted that any debt limit increase be accompanied by sharp spending cuts and major policy reforms — a combination featured in the GOP debt-ceiling package passed through the House late last month.
Biden has refused those entreaties, demanding a “clean” debt-limit increase that divorces the default threat from the debate over future government outlays, which he wants to discuss on a separate track. Threatening a default, Biden has said, is an irresponsible tactic with the nation’s economy on the line.
“America is the strongest economy in the world, but we should be cutting spending and lowering the deficit without a needless crisis,” Biden said Wednesday during a speech in New York.
The president’s allies in Congress have adopted the same posture.
“This is not about a public policy discussion related to the future of the health, the safety and the economic wellbeing of the American people. It’s a hostage-taking situation: Accept the dramatic cuts, or default,” Jeffries said. “Neither are acceptable.”
Yet both sides have, at times, used the nation’s borrowing cap as leverage during budget fights with presidents of the opposing party. As House Speaker in 2019, for instance, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also refused to raise the debt limit until Trump and congressional Republicans agreed to lift the government spending caps that were then in place.
“When we lift the caps then we can talk about lifting the debt ceiling — that would have to come second or simultaneous,” she said at the time.
In an effort to break the impasse, Biden hosted a meeting Tuesday with the top congressional leaders — McCarthy, McConnell, Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — with another White House meeting of those figures scheduled for Friday.
In the meantime, leadership and White House aides have been conducting behind-the-scenes negotiations — talks that leaders of both parties say are bearing fruit.
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a close McCarthy ally, told reporters Thursday that the staff-level talks are identifying areas of potential compromise. And Jeffries delivered a similar message.
“It’s my understanding that it was a very productive discussion at the staff level yesterday. It’s my expectation there will be continued conversations today,” Jeffries said.
Of Friday’s meeting, he added, “I expect that it will go well.”
Mychael Schnell and Emily Brooks contributed.