WASHINGTON - Speaker Kevin McCarthy left his first White House visit with confidence that he and President Joe Biden could negotiate a spending deal, but the real test may come in negotiations with his own Republican conference.
McCarthy, who had to bargain with hardline conservatives to win his speaker bid after 15 rounds of voting, leads a fractious caucus where some members are willing to gamble with the nation's credit score and global economy to try and get the federal spending cuts they want.
But what those cuts are, nobody seems to know.
"Their writ large approach seems to be take the hostage first and then they'll figure out later what they want," Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., ranking member of the House Budget Committee, told USA TODAY.
Recap: McCarthy, Biden to continue talks on debt limit; Nikki Haley to take on Trump in 2024
Will Social Security and Medicare be cut?
McCarthy and other Republican leaders have said cuts to Social Security and Medicare should be off the table in debt limit and spending negotiations, a pivot from their midterm campaigns when they said everything was on the table.
House GOP Whip Tom Emmer - the congressman tasked with the big role of corralling or "whipping" the votes - said he expected McCarthy would assure Biden Wednesday the country would not default on its debt and Social Security and Medicare wouldn't be part of the negotiations.
The president and McCarthy getting together in the White House was the "responsible" thing to do and would produce a "more sensible result," Emmer told USA TODAY.
What spending cuts do Republicans want?
Though Republicans have tried to reassure voters - and especially the markets - that they will not send the U.S. economy careening toward collapse, they have been vague about how they will cut spending to FY2022 levels without touching entitlements.
When asked what spending cuts the House GOP wants, or what might pass the chamber, Emmer deflected and focused on McCarthy's meeting with Biden as a positive sign the two could negotiate.
McCarthy didn't give Biden specific spending cuts or levels of spending cuts the House GOP would accept, he told reporters at the Capitol Wednesday night after their meeting.
After facing numerous questions in recent days about spending cuts, Emmer said in a statement Wednesday night, "Democrats and the media want to fearmonger about spending cuts. House Republicans are talking about spending reforms."
More: Fed interest rate decision today: Central bank hikes by 0.25 percentage point to tame inflation
He said the GOP is working on a "responsible, reasonable and sensible" budget "so we're not mortgaging our children and grandchildren's futures."
The House budget is due April 15, and Majority Leader Steve Scalise said the caucus is working to meet that deadline.
Some of the conservative think tanks in Washington, D.C. influencing government spending, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Renewing America, have proposed billions worth of cuts each to Defense, Housing and Urban Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Health and Human Services.
Even with billions in cuts to those programs, to get to FY2022 budget levels without touching Social Security and Medicare seems nearly impossible, Democrats said.
"The math is nowhere close to adding up," Boyle said.
What happened with the last debt ceiling fight?
McCarthy said he was specific with Biden about one thing: "We're not going to pass a clean debt ceiling."
That view could lead to a five-month political fight and lower the nation's credit rating, though McCarthy said he thought the two sides could reach an agreement "long before" a default.
Democrats say, if history shows anything, a GOP-led spending fight with a Democratic president could work in their favor.
Boyle pointed out former President Bill Clinton was hammered in the 1994 midterms and handed House Democrats their first loss in 40 years. He started to make a comeback in a debt ceiling fight with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and ultimate won reelection in 1996 by 8 points.
When former President Barack Obama was underwater on his approval rating in 2011, he mounted a comeback in a debt ceiling fight with the Tea Party. That year, the U.S. had its first-ever downgrade of its credit rating and made it cost more money for the country to borrow. Obama won reelection a year later.
"You'd think Republicans would learn from history," Boyle said. "Each time they lost in the court of public opinion and set up the next Democratic victory."
Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kevin McCarthy debt ceiling talks with Biden leave lingering questions
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