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Debt ceiling talks: Expectations are low as Biden and McCarthy prepare to sit down

As President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy prepare to sit down for their highly anticipated first talks around the debt ceiling, few are expecting much from this initial face-to-face gathering.

On one side, McCarthy and other Republicans have said that a deal needs to include spending caps at previous-year levels or a balanced budget, without specifying the deep cuts such a move would entail. On the other side, Biden and his aides have tried to avoid negotiations altogether, saying the debt limit should simply be raised without any pre-conditions.

Washington and Wall Street observers may be happy with even a whiff of forward progress from the meeting set for 3:15 pm ET Wednesday in the Oval Office, which comes as the Treasury Department continues its “extraordinary measures” to temporarily stave off a default.

The hope is that both sides find their way to “parameters where there can be a real discussion,” Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), told Yahoo Finance. That's the key, she said.

For instance, MacGuineas hopes McCarthy will calm markets by reiterating a pledge not to allow a default under any circumstances, while she said Biden needs to acknowledge that he’ll enter into a discussion that includes the debt ceiling.

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These “two pillars of utter sensibility are kind of hard to disagree with,” MacGuineas said.

And the modest expectations have been echoed from political observers to Wall Street analysts from JP Morgan Chase, who recently wrote to clients that they are expecting a deal will eventually be reached, but don't see it happening until later this year.

The timing is important. The Treasury's accounting maneuvers are likely to run out this summer and could push the U.S. economy and markets into uncharted territory if it remains a real possibility that the U.S. government won't be able to pay its bills.

But at least McCarthy doesn't appear to be in any rush. In an interview with Punchbowl News posted on Wednesday morning, the House Speaker discussed how he figured earnest negotiations would begin sooner or later no matter the White House's position this week.

"We’re eventually going to have to dance together. So when do you want to play the music, now or later?” he told the outlet.

As for Biden's approach, a memo released Tuesday from two of Biden's top aides laid out how the president will focus on asking McCarthy two questions: Will the Speaker promise to not let an actual default happen under any circumstances and when will the Speaker release a budget detailing the cuts he wants to make?

“President Biden will ask Speaker McCarthy to publicly assure the American people and the rest of the world that the United States will, as always, honor all of its financial obligations,” wrote Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, and Shalanda Young, head of the Office of Management and Budget.

McCarthy quickly responded on Twitter, calling the memo "political games."

The White House is scheduled to release its next budget proposal on March 9, with Biden saying he’ll tell McCarthy: “Show me your budget, I’ll show you mine.” McCarthy has said he is aiming for his side to release a budget proposal in April.

While often conflated, the budget process and the debt ceiling are different, but negotiators could end up linking the two. At the moment, the deadline for a deal around the debt limit to pay for already committed spending is set to fall sometime this summer, while a deal on spending bills for future spending will not need to be completed until the fall.

House Republicans are reportedly weighing an attempt to delay the debt ceiling timeline in order to line up the deadlines.

‘Our politicians have to level with the American people’

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 29: U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy attends a meeting with US President Joe Biden (R) and other Congressional Leaders to discuss legislative priorities through the end of 2022, at the White House on November 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. Biden met with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), Vice President Kamala Harris, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and others to discuss legislative priorities for the rest of the year. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Kevin McCarthy attended a White House meeting with other congressional leaders in last November. On Wednesday, he will meet with President Biden one-on-one. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) (Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images)

In the meantime, there is unforgiving arithmetic that Republicans have yet to fully address.

One idea floated by House Republicans includes pushing for a balanced budget in 10 years, but reaching that goal by 2032 would require 26% spending cuts across the board, according to an analysis from the CRFB.

And it becomes even more daunting once you start taking things off the table. Putting aside politically popular programs like defense spending, Social Security, Medicare, and veterans benefits means there needs to be 85% cuts everywhere else, the group said.

Yet during a CBS appearance on Sunday, Speaker McCarthy again called for a balanced budget, while simultaneously seeming to rule out reductions to Social Security and Medicare and suggesting he wants to tread lightly on cuts at the Pentagon.

What he returned to again and again was the idea that wasteful discretionary spending is the key, using a version of the word 10 times in just under eight minutes.

While MacGuineas allows there is ample waste in the federal government, focusing on that issue is an old tactic that politicians employ when they want to avoid discussing real policy choices, she said.

“Our politicians have to level with the American people,” she said, adding that Democrats have a similar move when they say that their goals can be achieved by taxing only rich people. “Our fiscal situation is such that in order to get us to a structural sustainable place, we will have to confront real tradeoffs."

This post has been updated with additional context

Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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