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Happy Tuesday morning.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with the Big Four at 3 p.m. in the White House, a critical session with just two weeks left before an unprecedented and potentially catastrophic debt default by the U.S. government.
This comes after a week of talks involving top Hill aides and White House officials. While both sides said the staff-level discussions were productive, they only served to reinforce the main problem in the stalemate so far — the principals haven’t given any ground yet because they haven’t been involved in the talks.
For the record, this could be a relatively straightforward agreement. Most lawmakers and aides tend to understand that any bipartisan deal will include budget caps, permitting reform and rescinding tens of billions of dollars in unspent Covid money. There will be a lot of attention given to additional work requirements for SNAP and other social welfare programs, but that’s a heavy lift.
Let’s be clear: Congressional negotiations often slog on without any glimmer of hope only to lead to an agreement when you least expect it. It’s often no, no, no, and then, finally, yes.
Yet with the clock ticking on a possible default, we wanted to lay out some evidence that these negotiations — and yes, the White House is negotiating over the debt limit — have serious structural flaws that make this a uniquely difficult situation.
No. 1: Timing. Congressional leaders believe it will take up to 10 days to move any bipartisan agreement — if it happens — through the House and Senate. Remember: Speaker Kevin McCarthy agreed when he took the gavel to give members 72 hours to review legislation. Party leaders need to unveil a deal to the rank and file, bring it to the Rules Committee and then to the floor. Surprisingly, there’s been no discussion in the leadership or during the negotiations about the floor process for any eventual deal. The GOP leadership has informally considered dividing the question — voting on the debt limit and cuts separately. But nothing has been decided yet.
The Senate, of course, needs a full week to process nearly any bill. It will be no different here.
No. 2: The structure of the negotiations. We’ve never seen a fruitful negotiation with more than 10 people in the room. This process has featured a dozen or more at different points.
Furthermore, participants on both sides of the aisle feel as if no one on the Democratic side can make decisions on behalf of the White House. Biden’s top negotiator at this point is Louisa Terrell, head of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs.
Over the weekend, Biden seemed to open the door to accepting GOP demands to increase work requirements for some social safety net programs. Hill Democrats freaked out. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries’ team forcefully pushed back during various internal meetings Monday. Biden then tweeted that he wouldn’t accept new work requirements for SNAP, quickly shutting down a potential avenue for compromise.
McCarthy called for bilateral talks with Biden during a news conference Monday evening. And Senate Minority Whip John Thune put it this way to us:
“It’s time for the principals to get more engaged, get their closers out there, get the closers in the room and get on with it…
“It’s got to get in a more serious stage. And right now my impression is they’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen, too many people in the room and not the right people.”
No. 3: Biden to Japan. Biden is scheduled to fly to Japan Wednesday for a weeklong trip that also includes stops in Australia and Papua New Guinea. This is a damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t situation for Biden. But the stakes are incredibly high for the White House in both the budget talks and at the G7.
No 4.: GOP spending cuts: Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young has a new memo out this morning saying that House Republicans will have to slash spending for all other federal agencies by 30% next year if they protect or even boost Pentagon, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security funding as promised. This is one reason why Democrats have taken such a hard line so far in these talks — they don’t believe McCarthy and House Republicans can actually deliver on the spending cuts they’ve promised.
What Yellen will say: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is set to speak at a summit hosted by the Independent Community Bankers of America later today.
Her remarks feature some of the sharpest rhetoric we’ve ever heard the Treasury secretary use on the debt limit. It’s also worth pointing out that she’s giving it to an assembly of community and regional bankers, whose industry would be walloped by the financial crisis that could follow a default.
Here’s a peek at what Yellen plans to say:
“Generations of Americans have protected the full faith and credit of the United States. That has been a bedrock of our global economic leadership. There is no good reason to squander that reputation now – and to trigger a manufactured crisis of our own creation.”
— Jake Sherman, John Bresnahan and Brendan Pedersen
Tomorrow: Punchbowl News Founder and CEO Anna Palmer and Financial Services Reporter Brendan Pedersen will interview Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) at 9 a.m. ET. They’ll discuss innovative approaches to job creation, economic growth and sustainability. RSVP here!
And don’t forget, we’re two weeks away from our panel discussion “The Briefing: A Conversation on Permitting Reform.” Jake Sherman will be speaking with industry leaders including Mike Sommers, CEO of American Petroleum Institute, Paula Glover, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, Jason Grumet, CEO of American Clean Power, and Sean McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions. RSVP to join us in person on Wednesday, May 31 at 9 a.m. ET!
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McCaul dishes on Afghanistan next steps
News: House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) is moving ahead with a contempt resolution against Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 24.
McCaul told us in a Monday interview he’s ready to take the “serious” action despite the State Department asking for more time to comply with his subpoena. McCaul predicted the contempt resolution would advance through the committee on a party-line vote and would likely hit the House floor in early June.
“It’d be the first time a secretary of State’s ever been held in criminal contempt, I believe,” McCaul said. “And so I don’t take it lightly.”
The State Department has steadfastly refused to turn over a dissent cable written by Kabul embassy staff criticizing the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, in addition to Blinken’s response to the cable. McCaul subpoenaed the documents in late March and has reset the deadline multiple times to accommodate State’s concerns.
Here’s a May 11 letter where a State Department legislative affairs official tells McCaul the department needs until May 18 to “carefully consider” the subpoena.
At the core of the issue has been the department’s stated desire to protect the signatories of the dissent cable. State has argued handing over the document to the Foreign Affairs panel would harm internal discussions among officials. McCaul, for his part, has offered to view the document with the signatories redacted. But that hasn’t seemed to move the needle for Blinken.
“There’s either something in these cables that they’re really worried about, or it’s just because he’s protecting the institution,” McCaul said. “I think it’s starting to hit home that, ‘Hey, I could be the first secretary of State to be held in contempt by Congress.’ And that’s not a good legacy.”
Blinken told McCaul that he’s unwilling to turn over the document because he doesn’t want to “betray his own people,” the Texas Republican recounted. “Somehow the Wall Street Journal got a hold of it. So go figure. I mean, the Wall Street Journal has it, but Congress doesn’t?”
A unique aspect of the McCaul-Blinken standoff is the admittedly “very cordial” and “very professional” relationship the two share, according to McCaul. Rather than attacking Blinken in caustic terms — as other GOP committee chairs have done to administration officials — McCaul has made an intentional effort to accommodate Blinken.
Another wrinkle in McCaul’s ongoing quest to probe the Afghanistan withdrawal is whether the House Oversight and Accountability Committee may be infringing on his turf.
“They’ve got enough on their plate,” McCaul said of Oversight. “So we’ve really gotten out there taking the lead.”
While McCaul said he was initially concerned about “duplicative testimony,” the Texas Republican added he’s been satisfied that Oversight is narrowly focused on the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
The State Department declined to comment on the record on McCaul’s next steps. State did provide the Foreign Affairs Committee with a classified briefing in late April detailing the warnings raised by embassy staff ahead of the pullout. Plus, State has provided the panel with a summary of the dissent cable.
But McCaul has been adamant these actions do not serve as compliance with his subpoena.
Want to read more from our one-on-one chat with McCaul? Check out our item on McCaul’s take on Ukraine aid from the Monday PM edition.
— Max Cohen
GOP sours on Tuberville’s military holds — but they’re not pressuring him
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pronouncement last week that he doesn’t support Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) decision to block senior military promotions was a turning point in the months-long saga over the Pentagon’s abortion policy.
But even as GOP opposition to Tuberville’s tactics build, he isn’t facing any pressure to back down.
Speaking to reporters on Monday evening, Tuberville said “nothing” will convince him to compromise on his position. Tuberville warned that he’ll lift his holds on high-level military promotions only when the Defense Department rescinds its abortion policy or the Senate votes to codify it.
Tuberville wouldn’t even accept a handshake agreement with the Biden administration to have Congress address the matter as part of the defense authorization bill later this year.
“They did that with Manchin and they lied to him,” Tuberville said, referring to Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) objections to the administration’s implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act.
The off-ramp that seems most likely here is for the Senate to vote on whether to codify the Pentagon’s abortion policy or overturn it via the Congressional Review Act — but even that is far from a sure thing.
News: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and a big group of Senate Democrats introduced a bill to make permanent a policy that effectively expands abortion access for U.S. servicemembers.
While this legislation could likely get a majority in the Senate, it would fall well short of the 60-vote threshold. Tuberville’s office has asked the Government Accountability Office if the Defense Department’s abortion policy could be subject to a CRA vote.
The impasse has frustrated senators from both parties, especially with Tuberville. It has meant that more than 200 military promotions usually confirmed unanimously — including high-level posts at NATO and in the Indo-Pacific — are being left in limbo.
“So he wants to hold all the goddamn flag officers and turn our military over to the Chinese government?” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) asked. “Fundamentally, you don’t politicize the military.”
And Tuberville’s fellow Republicans including McConnell are generally opposed to using military promotions as leverage, even though they agree with Tuberville on the legality of the DoD abortion policy.
“It’s not something I would do,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of McConnell’s leadership team, told us Monday night. “But obviously the senator feels strongly about the issue at hand. If you want leverage, you have to learn how to use it. I guess that’s what he’s doing. I wouldn’t do it.”
For many Republicans, there’s a sensitivity toward appearing as if they’re hampering the military, in stark contrast to what they preach as a party.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking member on Armed Services, has long expressed uneasiness about Tuberville’s holds. Wicker said it was urgent that the standoff be resolved, adding of Tuberville: “I would not have chosen that hill to march up.”
At least one leadership-aligned Republican is standing by Tuberville, though. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the Pentagon overstepped its authority and needs to be held accountable.
“I regret that it’s necessary, but I think it is,” Cornyn said.
— Andrew Desiderio
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What to watch in today’s wall-to-wall bank hearings
Capitol Hill’s major financial committees are competing for your attention today with some hefty hearings in both chambers. Get out your splitscreens.
Here’s your topline guide: The Senate Banking Committee and House Financial Services Committee will both hold hearings at 10 a.m. The House will host federal financial regulators, while the Senate will hear much-anticipated testimony from executives at the heart of March’s banking crisis — Greg Becker, former CEO of Silicon Valley Bank, Scott Shay, co-founder and former chair of Signature Bank and Eric Howell, Signature’s former president.
These aren’t the first hearings Congress has held on the bank failures. But this is the first time lawmakers will come armed with details from roughly 200 cumulative pages of reports released by the regulators last month. These reports looked at possible supervisory failures from the spring and floated fixes for Congress to consider.
The Senate’s bank executive hearing today will be buzzy. Lawmakers have been trying to get the executives at Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank to testify for months now, ever since the large regional banks were closed by regulators in mid-March.
We expect Democrats to zero in on the banks’ glaring risk management failures and whether regulators should have more freedom to claw back executive pay.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told us Monday night there appeared to be “huge management mistakes” at Silicon Valley Bank. When we asked about legislative fixes he was interested in, Warner replied: “I’ve got a lot of questions about governance.”
Republicans will focus more squarely on regulatory missteps from the Biden administration among bank supervisors, specifically at the Federal Reserve.
But we may also hear some GOP interest in legislation. There’s bipartisan support for clawing back executive pay after banks fail.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) told us she’d like to know “why the executives took compensation that was not commensurate with a bank that was failing.”
And Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) suggested he was open to conversations about expanding deposit insurance, saying he’d like to hear about “what the possibilities are, in terms of appropriately looking at [Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.] protection.”
The House, meanwhile, will host top regulators from the FDIC, Fed, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and National Credit Union Administration on Tuesday. You can read their written testimonies here.
We expect to see similar themes and faultlines play out in the House as in the Senate. Republicans, led by House Financial Services Committee Patrick McHenry (N.C.), will make the case that both state and federal bank supervisors moved too slowly to address problems at the floundering regional banks.
We’ll also see GOP lawmakers decry any efforts to strengthen banks regulatory requirements following recent failures, as previewed by Fed Vice Chair for Supervision Michael Barr in recent months. “I think robust supervision is what was lacking here, not robust regulation,” Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) said Monday night.
Democrats will push back on that, arguing that Trump-era changes to bank supervision may have discouraged regulators from acting more aggressively when problems emerged.
Rep. Brittany Pettersen (D-Colo.) said she wanted to know what regulators could do to make sure there’s a “consistent” way for supervisors to flag issues at banks so that problems don’t get ignored.
“A lot of these issues could have been elevated if [regulator feedback] was more consistent and defined,” Pettersen said.
– Brendan Pedersen
End Citizens United/Let America Vote endorses Gallego
News: End Citizens United/Let America Vote, a liberal group that’s a major player in the elections space, is endorsing Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) for Senate. ECU/LAV notably backed Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) in her 2018 bid.
It’s a further sign of Sinema’s growing distance from the progressive base that she relied on to win election to the Senate six years ago.
“Congressman Gallego will strengthen our democracy and put the needs of people first,” Muller said in a statement today. “On the other hand, there is a senator who prioritizes donors over people, or extremist Republicans who want to overturn election results. Arizonans deserve better.”
Sinema, along with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), were the only Democratic senators who publicly opposed efforts to reform the Senate filibuster in early 2022. Democrats eager to pass voting-rights legislation — a central issue for ECU/LAV — were demanding filibuster reform at the time.
Gallego’s Senate campaign has already received the support of three sitting members of Congress — Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.).
ECU/LAV raised and spent $80.6 million during the 2022 midterms.
— Max Cohen
… AND THERE’S MORE
House Minority Whip Katherine Clark is bringing on two new policy staffers to her team. Emily Carwell, who previously served as the staff director for the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, will be Clark’s new policy director. And Ian Staples will serve as Clark’s national security adviser. Staples was most recently acting deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Senate Affairs.
White House Senior Adviser John Podesta will speak at the New Democratic Coalition lunch on Tuesday. Podesta will discuss implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act and negotiations surrounding permitting reform.
Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) led a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, urging him to cancel the upper chamber’s upcoming recess as debt-limit negotiations persist. More than a dozen GOP members, mostly from the New York delegation, signed onto the letter asking the Senate to stay in session through June 1, when the Treasury anticipates the U.S. to default on its debt. The Senate is scheduled to leave on Friday until May 30.
Facts First USA, a group set up to hit back against House GOP investigations, is calling on the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to investigate House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.). The group alleges Comer may have made false statements when he discussed a missing whistleblower this weekend.
— Max Cohen, Heather Caygle and Mica Soellner
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9:30 a.m.: President Joe Biden will get his daily intelligence briefing.
10 a.m.: House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik and other lawmakers will hold a stakeout after the closed GOP meeting.
10:45 a.m.: House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar, Vice Chair Ted Lieu, and Reps. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) will hold a news conference after the closed Democratic Caucus meeting.
2 p.m.: Senate Republican and Senate Democratic leadership will hold their post-party-lunch news conferences.
3 p.m.: Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with the Big Four at the White House.
4:30 p.m.: The Bidens, Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will host a “celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month.”
Editorial photos provided by Getty Images.
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