WASHINGTON ― House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) rejected cutting spending on the military even as he portrayed the rising debt as an existential threat to the nation that needed to be urgently addressed in negotiations with President Joe Biden.
“Defense should not be on the table,” McCarthy told reporters after a “productive” meeting with Biden at the White House on Monday that yielded no agreement on lifting the debt ceiling.
If lawmakers can’t reach a deal, the federal government could default on its obligations as soon as June 1. A default would be unprecedented, throwing the entire financial system into chaos and wreaking havoc on the U.S. economy here and around the world.
Republicans have demanded significant spending cuts in exchange for lifting the federal government’s “debt ceiling,” a legal limit on how much the government can borrow to pay bills Congress has racked up over the years.
“The national debt is like a credit card,” McCarthy told Fox News recently, employing his favorite metaphor. “Year after year after year, Washington keeps hitting the limit, so they just keep expanding it. Now, America’s credit card debt is higher than what we make in an entire year. Shouldn’t we reevaluate how Washington is spending your money?”
When they controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress in 2017, Republicans went on a massive spending spree while also cutting taxes ― without making any fuss over the debt limit. In fact, they raised the debt limit three times with no demands for multi-year caps on spending like they’re asking Biden to agree to now.
A similar fight over the debt limit played out in 2011 under a different Democratic president, Barack Obama, who ultimately agreed to cut spending equally split between defense and non-defense programs.
This time around, Republicans are insisting on actually increasing spending for the military, veterans’ care, and border security, which means that any cuts to other parts of the budget like education, health care and safety net programs would have to be even deeper to meet the GOP demands of total budget savings.
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, that would mean the remaining areas of the budget would have to be slashed dramatically, including the departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Agriculture, among others.
U.S. spending on defense, meanwhile, has ballooned in recent years under both Republican and Democratic administrations. In 2021, Congress pushed Biden to spend nearly $30 billion more on defense than he had requested. The following year, he proposed a further increase, from $780 billion to $813 billion — yet Congress Hill pushed Biden to ultimately approve $45 billion on top of that, signing a record $858 billion defense budget. This year, the Biden administration is requesting $886 billion in defense spending, a 3% increase that would establish one of the largest peacetime military budgets ever.
It’s possible that Biden agrees to some sort of deal with Republicans that freezes future spending at current levels, which the CBO would then score as budget savings, including on defense, because of the growth of inflation.
But House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) indicated on Monday that Republicans aren’t willing to discuss freezing spending at current levels, something he called “an inherently reasonable position that many in our party might even be uncomfortable with.”
“House Republicans, their proposals haven’t gotten more reasonable,” Jeffries added. “They’ve gotten more extreme.”