President Joe Biden said Friday that Democratic and Republican negotiators were on the verge of resolving a debt ceiling standoff, as the deadline for a potentially catastrophic US default was pushed back to 5 June.
“It's very close and I'm optimistic,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “I'm hopeful we'll know by tonight whether we're going to be able to have a deal.”
Although there was no indication of an imminent public announcement, it was the strongest sign yet that the drama in Washington might end, allowing the government to borrow and avoid a default that would likely trigger a recession and send shockwaves through the global economy.
Earlier, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the dreaded X-date, when the government runs out of money unless it can borrow, will now be 5 June, not 1 June. Yellen, however, warned that the deadline extension does not change the urgency.
"Waiting until the last minute to suspend or increase the debt limit can cause serious harm to business and consumer confidence, raise short-term borrowing costs for taxpayers, and negatively impact the credit rating of the United States," she said in a letter to the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
According to unconfirmed US media reports, the deal taking shape would include an agreement to extend the government's borrowing authority for two years, meaning no repeat of the current drama before the 2024 presidential election.
Democrats, however, would have to offer concessions on Republican demands for sweeping spending limits on social safety and other domestic programs.
McCarthy told reporters that negotiators had "made progress" but added: "Nothing is agreed to until it's all agreed to."
A sign of how difficult it may be to nail down a deal revolved around a Republican demand that those applying for benefits like food assistance work for them.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates asserted that Republicans were willing to put at risk "over eight million jobs unless they can take food out of the mouths of hungry Americans."
IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva cited new data that she said showed the "US economy has proven resilient," but urged a "speedy resolution" to avoid the first default in the country's history.
"We think of the US Treasury market as an anchor for the global financial system, and this anchor needs to hold," she said.
With the country getting a three-day Memorial Day holiday weekend, members of Congress were leaving Washington on a 10-day recess. Even Biden -- to the consternation of some in his own party -- headed to his Camp David retreat, then his home in Delaware.
Yet Wally Adeyemo, the deputy Treasury secretary, told CNN that both Biden and McCarthy were focused on avoiding catastrophe.
"The president decided, the speaker has said it, and we have to get something done before June," Adeyemo said. "The president is committed to making sure that we have good faith negotiations with the Republicans to reach a deal, because the alternative is catastrophic for all Americans."
The debt ceiling raise is an annual accounting maneuver that usually passes with little notice. It simply allows the government to keep borrowing money to pay for bills already incurred through the budget.
This year, the increasingly hard-right Republican Party has decided to turn the debt ceiling into leverage to force Biden to roll back favorite Democratic spending priorities.
Republicans call this taking responsibility for the USD 31 trillion national debt. The White House accuses the opposition party, which controls the House of Representatives, of taking the economy hostage.
Democratic minority leader Hakeem Jeffries slammed the Republicans from the House floor on Thursday, accusing them of risking "a dangerous default in a crisis that they've created."
Economists have spent months raising the prospect of economic catastrophe should the government default, and top military brass added their own dire prognosis Thursday, warning that the crisis would have a "significant negative impact" on troops.
"Readiness clearly would be impacted," Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.
McCarthy has said lawmakers on recess will get 24 hours' notice if they are required to return for a vote.