Biden, McConnell debt standoffs are nothing new

The president and GOP leader have a long history of negotiating.

October 7, 2021, 5:46 PM

While GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell has backed down, at least temporarily, over the immediate showdown over the nation's debt ceiling, it's not the first time the Republican leader has been pitted against President Joe Biden in avoiding a catastrophic default.

In fact, standoffs over the federal debt are nothing new for McConnell and Biden. The two have a history of down-to-the-wire negotiations on the issue.

The veteran politicians have been on opposing sides of the negotiating table on the debt limit throughout their time in Washington, playing critical roles in brokering deals to meet looming deadlines in 2011 and 2013.

In 2011, the last time the country faced a possible default on their debts, then-Vice President Biden was put in charge of leading bipartisan negotiations to raise the debt ceiling. The talks were ultimately unsuccessful after House Republicans walked away from the table.

Despite the setback, Biden worked with McConnell to negotiate a solution, working down to the wire to avoid a potential default. It wasn't enough, however, to prevent the United States' credit rating from being downgraded for the first time in history due to the turmoil in Washington.

Fewer than two years later, with the two parties once again at an impasse, Biden and McConnell found themselves negotiating to avoid the "fiscal cliff" -- an impending collision of massive tax increases and sweeping automatic federal spending cuts combined with a looming debt crisis.

In late night and early morning calls ahead of the New Year holiday, Biden worked out a deal with McConnell after talks between then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and McConnell stalled.

PHOTO: In this Jan. 12, 2016, file photo, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell make their way to the House floor for President Obama's State of the Union address in Washington, D.C.
In this Jan. 12, 2016, file photo, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell make their way to the House floor for President Obama's State of the Union address in Washington, D.C.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images, FILE

Biden then made two trips to Capitol Hill within 14 hours to sell the plan to members of his own party, successfully averting the catastrophe.

Biden and McConnell served alongside each other in the Senate for 24 years and have often touted their long-standing relationship.

When pressed in 2019 about how he would deal with McConnell's obstruction if elected president, Biden pointed to his past experiences.

"Mitch McConnell is a very tough guy and Mitch McConnell has been very much an ideologue, but I remind you, you may remember when we were going to shut down the government and default on the national debt, I met with Mitch McConnell on the -- New Year's Eve day and I got him to agree to raise taxes on the wealthy," Biden said on the campaign trail.

"I've been able to get a lot -- at least people acknowledge I've been able to get an awful lot done with the Mitch McConnells of the world, in the past, by finding a common interest and a common ground with them," he added.

With the country again staring down a possible default, McConnell also played up his history with Biden in a letter to the president this week.

"For many years, our working relationship has been defined not only by our strong disagreements, but also by mutual transparency and respectful candor. I write in that spirit to express concern that our nation is sleepwalking toward significant and avoidable danger because of confusion and inaction from the Speaker of the House and the Senate Democratic Leader concerning basic governing duties," the Minority Leader wrote, noting that his current position was not out of line with Biden's past stance.

"In 2003, 2004, and 2006, Mr. President, you joined Senate Democrats in opposing debt limit increases and made Republicans do it ourselves. You explained on the Senate floor that your 'no' votes did not mean you wanted the majority to let the country default, but rather that the President's party had to take responsibility for a policy agenda which you opposed. Your view then is our view now."

Despite McConnell's outreach, as the stand off continued, Biden appeared to stay away from direct negotiations but was not shy about rebuking Republicans' efforts.

"What they are doing today is so reckless and dangerous in my view," Biden said of Republicans Monday. "It's about paying what we already owe, what has already been acquired. Not anything new. It starts with the simple truth. The United States is a nation that pays its bills and always has. From its inception, we have never defaulted."

PHOTO: President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 6, 2021.
President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 6, 2021.
Samuel Corum/Pool via ABACA via Newscom

After receiving the letter, Biden told reporters on Monday that he and McConnell would speak.

"I hope we can have some intelligent and honest conversation about what he's proposing," the president said.

The White House, however, later said no call between the two had taken place and downplayed the need for the president to get more personally involved.

"They have not spoken. I think what the president has repeatedly conveyed is that he's certainly open to, as he -- as he has shown throughout the course of his presidency, having conversations with Democrats and Republicans when he feels it would be constructive," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

While Senate Democrats cheered Wednesday's tentative agreement as a win for their party, the deal would likely punt the issue down the road to some point in December -- earning a lukewarm reception from Psaki.

"Why kick the can down the road a couple of more weeks? Why create an additional layer of uncertainty? Why not just get it done now? That's what we're continuing to press for, and that's our first choice," she told reporters Wednesday.

Thursday, the White House had a more optimistic view of the deal, with White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre calling it a "positive step forward" that would provide Democrats with "some breathing room from the catastrophic default we were approaching."

But even with his retreat, McConnell is standing firm that Democrats should solely own the responsibility of raising the debt limit through reconciliation so long as they continue to move on the president's multi-trillion dollar infrastructure and social spending deals through the same measure, along party lines.

"Republicans should never have brought us to the brink of default, like they did. Addressing the debt limit shouldn't be a partisan football. This is about paying the debt that both parties have already accrued, including the $8 trillion under Trump and McConnell," Jean-Pierre pushed back.

"This is a temporary respite, but we're not going to let up until Senator McConnell stops obstructing and allows us to put this behind us for good."

The new deal puts the new debt ceiling timeline squarely in line with another December deadline for Congress: funding the government to prevent a government shutdown, ensuring the showdowns are far from over.

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