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Biden says he can't guarantee the U.S. won't breach the debt limit

President Joe Biden takes questions after delivering remarks on the debt ceiling at the White House on Oct. 4, 2021.
Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden takes questions after delivering remarks on the debt ceiling at the White House on Oct. 4, 2021.

President Biden is calling on Republicans to "stop playing Russian roulette" with the U.S. economy and allow a straight up or down vote to raise the debt ceiling.

If Republicans continue to block such a vote, Biden said ominously on Monday that he could not guarantee the U.S. would not default on its obligations later this month. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that the government will run out of money to pay its bills by Oct. 18.

"A meteor is headed to crash into our economy," Biden said on Monday. "If you don't want to help save the country, get out of the way."

In a letter to the president Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell placed blame for the impasse on Democrats. "Our nation is sleepwalking toward significant and avoidable danger because of confusion and inaction from the Speaker of the House and the Senate Democratic Leader concerning basic governing duties," he wrote.

McConnell wants Democrats to use the reconciliation process — a procedural tactic they plan to employ to get a $3.5 trillion spending and tax plan through the Senate without any votes from Republicans.

The Senate parliamentarian has advised Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that such a procedure would pass muster for the debt limit under Senate rules, but Democrats say the process is too convoluted and time-consuming. Schumer says he intends to get a bill to raise the debt limit to Biden's desk by the end of the week, but it's not clear how he'll do that given that Republicans have refused to go along.

Biden stressed that the debt limit needs to be raised not to pay for new programs he proposes, but for spending and tax cuts approved previously by Congress and the Trump administration. He also noted that congressional Republicans increased the debt ceiling three times while Trump was in office, with Democratic support. Biden said it was "hypocritical, dangerous and disgraceful" that they wouldn't do so again.

He said if the debt ceiling is not raised, "people would see the value of their retirement accounts shrink," the reserve status of the U.S. dollar would be threatened and interest rates could rise.

"I can't believe that will be the end result," Biden said, saying he planned to discuss the issue with McConnell in the next few days.

The debt limit is one of many issues lawmakers are trying to iron out

The clash over the debt limit is just one of a number of challenges Democrats face on Capitol Hill as several bills key to Biden's agenda remain in legislative limbo: the $3.5 trillion spending package and a $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

Asked why he has failed so far to unite his party over his legislative packages, Biden said that 99% of Democratic lawmakers were united.

"Two, two people, that's still underway," he said, referring to Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Manchin and Sinema want to lower the price tag on the legislation.

Biden also stressed that his $3.5 trillion "build back better" proposal that Democrats are now ironing out contains his plans and were not those of progressive Democrats such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who have largely signed on to the measure and acknowledge it is likely to be pared back to win Manchin and Sinema's votes. Of the at-times tumultuous negotiations, Biden said, "this is a process, we'll get it done."

Sinema was pressured by activists who followed her into a restroom over the weekend. Asked about the incident, Biden said: "I don't think they're appropriate tactics, but it happens to everybody. It's a part of the process."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.