Rep. Susan Wild, one of the country’s most politically vulnerable Democrats, made her displeasure known over the White House’s handling of talks to raise the debt ceiling with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
In a closed-door meeting on Thursday, the Pennsylvania Democrat contended that the White House’s deal-cutting could put her party in a difficult position and force lawmakers to vote on thorny issues that would almost certainly be used against them in their reelection bids next year. And above all else: She said that the White House was taking House Democrats’ votes for granted, according to sources in the room.
Wild’s sentiment, which has been echoed privately by progressives and moderates alike, was noted by House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries. The New York Democrat assured his caucus that he has relayed that message to the White House to convey to House GOP negotiators in the last-ditch talks to avoid default.
“There’s going to be votes that are going to be required by House Democrats, and we can’t vote for something that goes against our constituents and their interests,” Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told CNN.
In private, the assessment is much harsher.
“The White House needs to understand there are a lot of very frustrated members of the Democratic Caucus who are very concerned about the position that Democrats are being put in,” one Democratic lawmaker told CNN. “Everybody in the room is worried, is not being communicated with. They don’t know what’s happening.”
Indeed, the widespread angst comes as Democrats fear that the White House is getting rolled in negotiations with McCarthy, who has insisted he would only give into one concession – to raise the debt ceiling – in exchange for a host of Republican priorities. In particular, any deal is expected to include spending cuts for a wide range of domestic programs, many of which are top Democratic priorities.
Plus, Republicans are demanding new work requirements on social safety net programs like food stamps, something that Jeffries has warned against. And the GOP is pushing to ease the permitting of energy projects, an idea that is causing progressives to revolt.
McCarthy is expected to lose dozens of his conservative members on any deal cut with the White House. That means the California Republican will have to rely on Democratic votes to get the bill over the finish line.
Jeffries, though, offered a blunt warning on Thursday.
“Yes,” he said when asked by CNN whether GOP leaders are wrong to assume that House Democrats will help supply the votes to pass a deal worked out with the White House.
Democrats believe they are getting hammered by the lack of White House pushback against McCarthy, who has been a near-constant presence on TV making the GOP’s argument. That’s caused Democrats on Capitol Hill to scramble to try to counter McCarthy’s messaging operation, including on the floor Thursday when dozens of Democrats criticized the GOP for recessing for Memorial Day before a deal has been reached to avoid default.
“The White House communications strategy is an atrocity. I should say, it’s not really a strategy. Where’s the president? Is he in an undisclosed location?” one Democratic lawmaker said.
White House officials argue that they have made the case for months about the GOP’s refusal to raise the debt ceiling without any conditions, calling it dangerous and risky. But they say that now they are giving space for highly sensitive negotiations that must bear fruit. Plus, White House officials say a final deal will have provisions backed by Democrats.
“Our concern is not about the president,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker. “We have confidence in him,” she said. “Our concern is about the Republicans who have gone home.”
Many Democrats complain that the White House has not done enough to keep them informed in the talks and then will lean on them at the last minute to vote for a deal they don’t like.
“McCarthy needs to understand that he is not entitled to votes from a party that he does not belong to,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a member of the Progressive Caucus.
Some say that Biden should stop negotiating all together.
“We don’t negotiate with terrorists globally, why are we going to negotiate with the economic terrorists here that are the Republican Party,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a progressive New York Democrat who contended he’s “frustrated” with the White House’s handling of the talks.
In the Thursday meeting, Democratic lawmakers called on Biden to make an address from the Oval Office to better frame the stakes of a potential default and call out Republicans over their proposals.
While McCarthy has held a news conference after every meeting with Biden and presses the Republican argument multiple times a day in extended exchanges with reporters, Biden has rarely addressed the issue, leading many House Democrats to raise alarm bells that Republicans are controlling the narrative.
Instead of shaping the debate, one lawmaker said, “We’re not framing it at all. So, we’re just ceding the space. It’s insane. I’ve never seen anything like this. We have the Oval Office, and it’s like we might as well be in, like, Walmart.”
Horsford, the Nevada Democrat, said, “I would call on the president to make an address to the nation to explain exactly what the Republicans have walked away from,” adding that there are several previsions Biden has offered in the negotiations that have not been made public.
Washingon state Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the leader of House progressives, says she has made that case to the White House privately.
“I have expressed to the White House publicly and privately that I think this is a time when we need to get our message out,” Jayapal told CNN. “We’re mobilizing our networks because I do think we have allowed Republicans to have a stage for their misinformation and lies.”
House Democrats have tried to sharpen their messaging strategy by organizing 88 members to give speeches on the floor about what’s at stake with these negotiations. Democratic leaders called Thursday’s caucus meeting to give members an opportunity to air their grievances and get on the same page.
“I think we could benefit from having the president and folks at the White House really helping and joining and amplifying that message,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “But I do think this is a team sport, and Democrats in Congress have been very aggressive in making their case.”
And many argue that such a messaging push might be too late.
“Hakeem can’t do it because he’s not in the talks. So, you know, it’s not on him. He’s trying, which I give him a lot of credit,” a Democratic lawmaker said. “But the bottom line is, the person who is on the other side of the negotiations here, the president, is MIA in public. So, there’s a vacuum and the only person filling it is Kevin McCarthy. And he’s doing a good job. But it’s easy for him. He has no one to compete with. It’s outrageous.”
White House officials defend their strategy by saying Biden’s silence over the last several days has allowed the negotiators space to do their work, even if it meant ceding the messaging space to Republicans.
Biden, who vowed last year to avoid becoming a “senator-president,” has taken that prescription to heart, according to aides. Aside from his handful of meetings and telephone calls with McCarthy, he has delegated direct negotiations to his team.
He has told his advisers that speaking publicly about the state of talks – particularly as they have been making slow progress this week – could backfire, giving conservatives a reason to balk. And that it could draw him into a contentious back-and-forth that may create more hurdles for an eventual deal.
Still, there have been signs the White House is working to refine the president’s messaging. Speaking in Japan on Saturday, Biden framed the talks as a typical negotiation, shrugging off the bluster as something he expected all along: “This goes in stages. I’ve been in these negotiations before,” he said.
That wasn’t in line with the public messaging from his own aides, who had begun accusing Republicans of exercising unprecedented tactics to take the economy “hostage.”
A day later, Biden had adjusted his tone to come more in line with what his team had been saying. At the start of a news conference, he warned the GOP’s “extreme” position could send the nation into default.
Yet for the next several days, he did not offer substantive updates on the talks. Nor did his negotiating team, which is comprised of longtime senior aides who do not regularly speak in public. That was a sharp contrast to the Republican negotiators, all elected officials who provided updates regularly as they came and went from talks.
Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee acknowledged that the White House’s decision to keep negotiations behind closed doors while McCarthy and his allies message publicly does, “in the short term, affect the way the message is delivered.”
“When one party sees it as a public relations issue, we see it as a real threat to the American and global economy. And there’s a short-term sacrifice that comes with that. In the long term, I think it’ll be proven out,” the Michigan Democrat said.