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White House and GOP Reportedly Nearing Agreement to Raise Debt Ceiling

Key disputes remain as Sanders warns that allowing the GOP to hold the economy hostage would set a dangerous precedent.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks as Senators Jeff Merkley, Ed Markey and John Fetterman listen during a news conference on debt limit at the U.S. Capitol on May 18, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Bernie Sanders said late Thursday that cuts to aid programs for vulnerable people should be “off the table” entirely as Republican negotiators and the Biden White House reportedly closed in on a deal that would raise the debt ceiling in exchange for a two-year cap on non-military discretionary spending.

Sanders (I-Vt.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Republicans have engaged in “an outrageous display of extremist politics” by “holding hostage the entire world economy unless they get what they want.”

“Right now in America, you got a middle class which is shrinking, you got 60% of our people living paycheck-to-paycheck, childcare system in disarray, healthcare system collapsing, housing — all over the country people can’t afford housing,” Sanders said. “You don’t cut programs that working people desperately need.”

The senator appeared on the network shortly after The New York Times reported that top White House officials and GOP lawmakers were nearing an agreement that would cut non-military discretionary spending or keep it roughly at this year’s levels — a real-term cut when accounting for inflation.

Under the emerging deal, the debt ceiling would be raised for two years, temporarily preventing an economy-wrecking default.

According to the Times, the deal would “roll back $10 billion of the $80 billion Congress approved last year for an IRS crackdown on high earners and corporations that evade taxes, though that provision was still under discussion.”

“As the deal stood on Thursday, the IRS money would essentially shift to nondefense discretionary spending, allowing Democrats to avoid further cuts in programs like education and environmental protection, according to people familiar with the pending agreement,” the Times reported. “The plan had yet to be finalized, and the bargainers continued to haggle over crucial details that could make or break any deal.”

Sanders told Cooper on Thursday that all he knows of the possible deal is what he read in the Times, and that “it may be right, it may be wrong.”

The senator stressed that “there are ways that you can cut government spending without doing it on the backs of the most vulnerable people in this country” and slammed Republicans for stonewalling efforts to raise taxes on the wealthy, rein in out-of-control military spending, and slash prescription drug costs.

“It’s not good enough for them to say, ‘Oh, we get huge campaign contributions from billionaires, we don’t want to tax them. Oh, we love the military-industrial complex, we don’t want to cut military spending. Off the table,'” Sanders said. “Well, it’s not off the table. What should be off the table are children in America, where we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country. That should be off the table. The needs of elderly people who are struggling to pay for their prescription drugs — that should be off the table.”

Asked about his call for President Joe Biden to consider invoking the 14th Amendment to avert a catastrophic default, Sanders said such a move would easily be preferable to “the Republican approach” of “massive cuts for the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor.”

“If the Republicans are prepared to hold the entire world economy hostage and say, ‘Hey Mr. President, you’ve got no alternative but to make massive cuts to programs for vulnerable people — you have no alternative.’ Well, the president does have an alternative.”

Sanders added that allowing Republicans to “get away with holding the economy hostage” would set “a precedent for years to come.”

It’s still far from clear that Republicans and the White House will strike a debt ceiling agreement before June 1, the day the Treasury Department says the government could run out of money to pay its obligations. A number of key disputes remain, including the GOP push for work requirements for aid programs — an effort that has drawn strong pushback from progressives.

“GOP wants to add bureaucratic red tape to make it even harder for people who are hungry to get food assistance that averages only about $6/day. Really?” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tweeted Thursday. “None of this saves any money. It’s just cruel. POTUS must reject these demands in any negotiation.”

It’s also not certain that any eventual deal can gain enough support to get through Congress, with far-right Republicans threatening to tank an agreement that doesn’t enact sufficiently steep federal spending cuts.

House Democrats, too, are reportedly unhappy with the emerging outlines of the deal.

According to Punchbowl, the top three House Democrats—Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) — warned the White House on Thursday that “it can’t just assume 80 to 100 Democrats will back any Biden-McCarthy deal.”

One unnamed Democratic aide told the outlet that the deal currently in the works is “‘shitty enough’ that Democrats don’t feel compelled to back it and it’s not good enough for the GOP to bring 200 Republicans on board.”

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