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After meeting with Biden, McCarthy says he won't agree to clean debt ceiling increase

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill after meeting with President Biden on Feb. 1, 2023.
Devin Speak
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill after meeting with President Biden on Feb. 1, 2023.

Updated February 1, 2023 at 7:21 PM ET

For the first time since becoming House speaker, California Republican Kevin McCarthy met Wednesday with President Biden to discuss how to avoid a default on the U.S. debt.

The two men, who spoke for about an an hour, did not walk away with a solution, but McCarthy told reporters outside the White House that the discussion was productive and that he looks forward to speaking with Biden again. He added that he hopes they can reconcile their differences "long before the deadline" so they can get to work on other issues.

But speaking to reporters later on Capitol Hill, McCarthy offered more specifics, saying he would not agree to a "clean" bill that would only raise the debt ceiling without spending cuts attached.

"That's not gonna happen. We're not just gonna keep spending and just raise the limit on our credit card, we're gonna do something different," he said.

While McCarthy continued to characterize the meeting with Biden as a "good discussion," he said that both he and the president were very straightforward and laid out "different perspectives."

"I'm more than willing to sit down and talk to him and work with him on how we change this together," he said.

In a statement after the meeting, the White House described the discussion as "frank and straightforward" while reiterating its stance that the responsibility of ensuring the U.S. doesn't default on its debts falls to leaders on all sides and is "not negotiable or conditional."

Biden said he welcomes discussions about government spending and the national debt, separate from each other.

The federal government reached its $31.4 trillion debt limit earlier this month, and since then the Treasury Department has been taking "extraordinary measures" to ensure the country pays its bills and avoids a default. But those measures could be exhausted as early as June, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says.

That means Congress has to act, by either raising or suspending the debt limit. Failing to do so would mean an unprecedented and potentially catastrophic default on U.S. debt.

The White House has consistently said lifting the ceiling is not up for negotiation. Biden said earlier this month that a default would be "a calamity that exceeds anything that's ever happened financially in the United States."

But to win over conservatives in his bid for the speakership, McCarthy agreed that raising the debt ceiling would come with spending cuts.

"Think about the budgets, it's all discretionary, there's trillions of dollars there, so there's a lot of places," McCarthy told NPR before the afternoon meeting.

But he wouldn't get specific.

"I'm not going to negotiate with the press, I'm going to negotiate with the president himself," McCarthy said.

McCarthy said last week that he hopes to find "common ground" with Biden to eliminate "wasteful" government spending.

"I want to look the president in the eye and tell me there's not $1 of wasteful spending and government. Who believes that? The American public doesn't believe that. Our whole government is designed to have compromise," McCarthy said. "For the president to say he wouldn't even negotiate, that's irresponsible."

On Tuesday, Biden told reporters McCarthy is a "decent man" but is catering to the far-right wing of his party on this issue.

"This is not your father's Republican Party," Biden said. "I mean it, this is a different breed of cat."

Democrats point out that Republican lawmakers voted to lift the debt ceiling three times under former President Donald Trump-- and argue that the health of the economy should not be used as a bargaining chip.

NPR's Deirdre Walsh and Devin Speak contributed to this story. contributed to this story

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Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.