On Capitol Hill, this week delicate negotiations to avert a default on the government’s debts took place over midnight video calls, marathon meetings in a grand conference room and at least one morning bike ride.
At the White House, evening tour groups were diverted from the West Wing as President Biden was in the Oval Office with his chief of staff and other advisers, requiring his quick response.
But all talk so far has failed to produce a deal to raise the country’s debt ceiling, raising fears of a potentially catastrophic default that could roil financial markets, drive up interest rates and cost the country May end in downgrade of credit.
Negotiators got some respite Friday afternoon when Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said the United States could run out of money to pay its bills in time by June 5 – a slight extension from the previous June 1 deadline.
But a week of frantic and “productive” meetings made it feel like day and night were going on all at once to those trapped in the conversation room.
“Here we are, night after night,” said Representative Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, one of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s top lieutenants.
“Everybody wants the details,” Mr McHenry said, when a mob of reporters demanded to know whether the country was about to descend into economic disaster. “Everyone wants a tweet. I want an agreement that changes the course of the country.
As he said it, the usually affable congressman telegraphed his fatigue in small ways: The bow tie he wears every day was gone.
Mr. McCarthy, who went for a bike ride Friday morning with one of his key interlocutors, Representative Garrett Graves of Louisiana, weighed in candidly: “We have to make more progress now.”
Although Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy have known each other for years and speak (mostly) respectfully about each other in public, their relationship has so far been less about finding harmony and more about extracting concessions.
“You have two Irishmen who don’t drink,” Mr McHenry quipped earlier in the week. “It’s a different setup than Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan,” said Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., a Democrat and the Republican president, who also shared Irish heritage, and were known to share a beer. Used to go
Mr Biden’s aides have been working around the clock since talks suddenly broke down a week ago, leading to a “pause” imposed by Republicans on talks that took members of the president’s negotiating team by surprise. From Japan, Mr. Biden demanded frequent updates, and ended a scheduled dinner early to receive a briefing on the talks. On the final day of his trip, Mr. Biden’s advisers in Washington woke up at 4:30 a.m. to update him by video.
Since then, negotiators from the two sides have met several times in a conference room on the House side of Capitol Hill under a fresco painted by artist Constantino Brumidi in which “a retired Roman general is remembered for defending his city”. is a classical phenomenon often seen as a parallel to the life of George Washington, according to the Architect of the Capitol’s website.
The details of the meetings themselves have not been nearly as colorful. Mr. McHenry this week expressed his frustration at all those people who pretended to know what was happening.
“Everyone wants to guess or do some self-serving read about what we’re talking about, but there are only a few of us in the room,” he said.
Mr. Biden’s team of negotiators is led by Shalanda D. Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Steve Ricchetti, an adviser to the president, who has been Mr. Biden’s liaison to Capitol Hill since his days as vice president. President Richetti has been driven back and forth along Pennsylvania Avenue all week between White House meetings and meetings with Republicans, according to a person familiar with his schedule.
Throughout the negotiations, Mr. Ritchetti has been the only member of the team empowered to make strategic decisions on behalf of Mr. Biden, according to two people familiar with the talks. (She is one of the few people who has the authority to answer the president’s phone on behalf of Mr. Biden when they are together.)
The group also includes Louisa Terrell, director of legislative affairs. Both he and Ms. Young have deep ties on Capitol Hill; Ms. Young was a longtime staff member of the House Committee on Appropriations, who has established respect with both Republicans and Democrats, according to several former administration officials. Ms Terrell’s experience on Capitol Hill dates back to Mr Biden’s time in Senate office.
According to several people involved, his experience will be crucial in continuing to sell members on any deal that comes along. When negotiators from Capitol Hill traveled to the White House in the middle of the week, they met in a conference room near Ms. Young’s suite of offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
At the White House, Mr. Biden receives daily updates from his chief of staff, Jeffrey D. Zients. People familiar say Mr. Zient has not been involved in the outside talks, but he is leading the strategy that guides those meetings from the White House. He is in regular contact with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, and Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the House’s top Democrat. (Mr. Schumer said in a statement that the president’s interlocutors “are available when we have questions.”)
Mr. Biden is also working closely with Bruce Reid, 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 negotiating publicly – as he has said many times since becoming president – remained silent on Thursday except to say that he and Mr. McCarthy have “very different views on who bears the burden.” Must take “extra effort to get our fiscal house in order.”
As such, at the Capitol, negotiators have taken on a sort of celebrity status among reporters, with dozens of reporters trailing them and hanging on their every word for any insight into the conversation.
Non-reporters were less thrilled: A crowd of reporters followed Mr Graves from the Capitol on Friday afternoon, pressing themselves against each other to be heard, with one onlooker saying, “I don’t even know who he is.” “
Mr. McCarthy has begun speaking to the media several times a day, often repeating the same things but never missing an opportunity to present his side to the public. (At least twice he walked over in the middle of a reporter’s live TV appearance, adopted a broad smile and started talking to people watching at home.)
Mr. Graves, a media-shy Louisiana Republican, tried to meet with members of the Louisiana State University women’s national basketball championship team on Thursday as reporters pestered him looking for any scraps of information: “Haven’t you asked the speaker See?” he told a group of reporters at one point, who were trying to get him away from them.
Despite all the interest, the House ended its votes for the week on Thursday morning, with most lawmakers happy to leave Washington. Some Democrats stayed behind to embarrass their Republican colleagues for leaving the city with an economic disaster.
“America may be beyond its ability to pay our bills and extreme MAGA Republicans have chosen to get out of town before sunset,” Mr Jeffries said from the House floor.
Soon, most of the Democrats were gone as well. The country could default on its debt in little more than a week. But first there was Memorial Day weekend.