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'This is a compromise': How the White House is defending the debt ceiling bill

Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Bharat Ramamurti, pictured at a White House briefing last August, spoke to <em>Morning Edition</em> after the House passed its debt ceiling bill.
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Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Bharat Ramamurti, pictured at a White House briefing last August, spoke to Morning Edition after the House passed its debt ceiling bill.

Updated June 1, 2023 at 9:56 AM ET

House lawmakers passed a bill to suspend the debt ceiling, enabling the U.S. to pay off its bills while also cutting federal spending going forward.

The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 passed the House in a bipartisan 314-117 vote Wednesday night, with just days to spare and concessions on both sides, as NPR has reported.

It establishes spending caps for the federal budget and implements policy changes, including clawing back some $27 billion in funding to federal agencies intended to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and phasing in higher age limits for work requirements on certain federal safety net programs, like food stamps.

President Biden called it a "critical step forward to prevent a first-ever default," and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said lawmakers "made history" with the scope of their savings.

The Congressional Budget Office has projected a total deficit reduction of $1.5 trillion over the next decade, though that doesn't take into account several "agreed-upon adjustments" that would increase federal spending in the coming months.

Bharat Ramamurti, the deputy director of the National Economic Council — which advises the president on economic policy — says the administration's view is that the bill takes the possibility of default off the table, protects entitlement programs like social security and Medicare, and helps preserve economic progress from the last few years.

"We think we were able to secure some of our key priorities, and if the speaker thinks that he got what he's wanted to get out of this, that's why you see bipartisan support for the deal both in the House and hopefully the Senate," Ramamurti told Morning Edition's Leila Fadel on Thursday.

The legislation heads now to the Democratic-controlled Senate, which will need to approve it by Monday to get it to the president's desk and keep the U.S. from defaulting. Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle have said they aim to pass it as quickly as possible, ideally by the end of the week.

That doesn't mean all senators are on board with the bill (which needs 60 votes to pass). Some progressives — including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — have slammed the concessions on things like work requirements, student debt repayments, climate change and taxes on the wealthy.

Ramamurti says that while the administration respects the opinion of every member of Congress, "we think this is a good, fair deal."

"As the president has said, this is a compromise, and a compromise means that nobody gets exactly what they want," he adds. "There are certainly elements of this agreement where we share some of these concerns ... but they were priorities for the Republican party, and in a world where we have divided government the deal's going to have to reflect that reality."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Interview highlights

On whether any of these concessions are reversible

It at least opens the door or leaves open the possibility for changes in the future, of course. For example, some of the reductions in funding for the [Internal Revenue Service], something that we didn't necessarily agree with, of course doesn't foreclose the possibility of adding more money for that department in the future.

But I think crucially, even in the short term, what this bill does is it allows us to continue to advance the priorities the president had over the last two years. On the IRS funding, for example, while there's a small reduction, the Treasury Department and IRS remain confident that with the funding we still have we'll be able to continue to offer much better service to taxpayers, we'll continue to be able to step up our enforcement of tax evasion on the wealthy and big corporations who previously have been able to evade some of their tax obligations.

On those who argue Biden shouldn't have negotiated at all

I certainly understand those views. I think the president feels like it was important to take the possibility of default off the table in a definitive way. Congress has acted 78 times previously in this country's history to suspend or increase the debt ceiling, that is the foolproof method of addressing this and in order to get that the president needed to sit down with his counterparts in the House ... Every year you have to do a negotiation over the budget; we did one last year with Democrats and Republicans and came out with a fair deal and we think ultimately the deal that the president secured is very similar to the ones we've gotten in the past.

On the historic significance of the bill

I think that there were important priorities for the president and important priorities for the speaker reflected in this deal. We think that we have secured a level of funding for domestic programs that allows us to continue to pursue our priorities. We were glad to see the continued funding for veterans' medical care and ... Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, no cuts to those programs, as the Republicans initially wanted.

The broadcast interview was edited by Jan Johnson.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.