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Biden celebrates debt bill in address

‘Crisis averted,’ he says from Oval Office by Compiled byDemocrat-Gazette stafffrom wire reports | June 3, 2023 at 5:03 a.m.
President Joe Biden addresses the nation on the budget deal that lifts the federal debt limit and averts a U.S. government default, from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, June 2, 2023. (Jim Watson/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden celebrated Friday a "crisis averted" in his first prime-time address from the Oval Office, ready to sign a budget agreement that eliminates the potential for an unprecedented government default that he said would have been catastrophic for the U.S. and global economies.

The bipartisan measure was approved by the Senate late Thursday after passing the House in yet another late session the night before. Biden is set to sign it at the White House today with just two days to spare until the Treasury Department has warned the U.S. wouldn't be able to meet its obligations.

"Passing this budget agreement was critical. The stakes could not have been higher," Biden said. "Nothing would have been more catastrophic," he said, than defaulting on the country's debt.

The agreement was hashed out by Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, giving Republicans some of their demanded federal spending cuts but holding the line on major Democratic priorities. It raises the debt limit until 2025 -- after the 2024 presidential election -- and gives legislators budget targets for the next two years, in hopes of assuring fiscal stability as the political season heats up.

"No one got everything they wanted, but the American people got what they needed," Biden said.

"We averted an economic crisis and an economic collapse," he said.

Biden used the opportunity to itemize the achievements of his first term as he runs for reelection, including support for high-tech manufacturing, infrastructure investments and financial incentives for fighting climate change -- while at the same time highlighting how he forestalled steeper spending cuts pushed by the GOP that he said would have rolled back his agenda.

"We're cutting spending and bringing deficits down at the same time," Biden said. "We're protecting important priorities from Social Security to Medicare to Medicaid to veterans to our transformational investments in infrastructure and clean energy."

Even as he pledged to continue working with Republicans, Biden also drew contrasts with the opposing party, particularly when it comes to raising taxes on the wealthy, something the Democratic president has sought.

It's something he suggested may need to wait until a second term.

"I'm going to be coming back," he said. "With your help, I'm going to win."

Biden largely remained quiet publicly during the high-stakes talks, a decision that frustrated some members of his party but was intended to give space for both sides to reach a deal and for lawmakers to vote it to his desk.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday that Biden was using the occasion to deliver his first address to the nation from behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office because "he just wanted to make sure that the American people understood how important it was to get this done, how important it was to do this in a bipartisan way."

Biden praised McCarthy and his negotiators for operating in good faith, and all congressional leaders for ensuring swift passage of the legislation.

McCarthy "and I, we and our teams, we were able to get along, get things done," Biden said. "We were straightforward with one another, completely honest with one another and respectful with one another. Both sides operated in good faith."

The president made a renewed pitch for his governing style, which he described as less shouting and lower temperatures after four years of former President Donald Trump.

Overall, the 99-page bill restricts spending for the next two years and changes some policies, including imposing new work requirements for older Americans receiving food aid and greenlighting an Appalachian natural gas pipeline that many Democrats oppose. Some environmental rules were modified to help streamline approvals for infrastructure and energy projects -- a move long sought by moderates in Congress.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates it could actually expand total eligibility for federal food assistance, with the elimination of work requirements for veterans, homeless people and young people leaving foster care.

The legislation also bolsters funds for defense and veterans, cuts back some new money for the Internal Revenue Service and rejects Biden's call to roll back Trump-era tax breaks on corporations and the wealthy to help cover the nation's deficits. But the White House said the IRS' plans to step up enforcement of tax laws for high-income earners and corporations would continue.

The agreement also imposes an automatic overall 1% cut to spending programs if Congress fails to approve its annual spending bills -- a measure designed to pressure lawmakers of both parties to reach consensus before the end of the fiscal year in September.

In both chambers, more Democrats backed the legislation than Republicans, but both parties were critical to its passage.

Before approving the bill late Thursday, the Senate rejected 11 proposed amendments. Any changes to the legislation would have required it be sent back to the House, making it very difficult to meet the Monday deadline.

To alleviate concerns from Senate hawks that the bill would prevent lawmakers from adequately funding the Pentagon in a crisis, Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued a joint statement Thursday saying the "debt ceiling deal does nothing to limit the Senate's ability to appropriate emergency supplemental funds to ensure our military capabilities are sufficient to deter China, Russia, and our other adversaries."

The Senate approved the debt measure Thursday night on a 63-36 vote, allowing Biden just days to sign it before Monday, when the government would no longer be able to pay all of its bills without borrowing more.

In the Senate, Democrats broke 44-4 in favor of the bill, while Republicans voted 31-17 against it. Among independents, Sens. Angus King of Maine and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona voted yes, while Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont voted no.

"Democrats are feeling very good tonight," Schumer said after the vote. "We've saved the country from the scourge of default. Even though there were some on the other side who wanted default, who wanted to lead us to default." In his remarks Friday, Biden listed Democratic priorities he said were protected in the compromise bill: Medicare and Medicaid, veterans' programs, lower drug prices and climate change initiatives.

McConnell credited House Republicans' efforts for avoiding a default and curbing "Washington Democrats' addiction to reckless spending that grows our nation's debt."

The vote Wednesday in the House was 314-117.

The most outspoken House conservatives remain furious at McCarthy, saying he gave away his leverage and won few concessions. And some liberals are bitter at the provisions accepted by Biden, including additional work requirements for welfare recipients and easier permitting for fossil fuel projects.

Biden has said he might eventually seek to declare the nation's borrowing limit incompatible with the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which says that the federal government's debts must be paid. But for now, Biden sought to bask in the glow of what he portrays as a triumph for his approach to governing.

"I know bipartisanship is hard and unity is hard, but we can never stop trying," he said in the Oval Office remarks. "Because in a moment like this one, the one we just faced, where the American economy and the world economy is at risk of collapsing, there's no other way. No matter how tough our politics gets, we need to see each other not as adversaries, but as fellow Americans."

Information for this article was contributed by Zeke Miller, Chris Megerian and Lisa Mascaro of The Associated Press; by Michael D. Shear of The New York Times; and by John Wagner, Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Leigh Ann Caldwell, Marianne LeVine and Rachel Siegel of The Washington Post.

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