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Debt ceiling negotiations to resume after breaking down over the last few days

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The debt ceiling negotiations throw light on the man whose party provoked them - House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The House Republican leader spoke by phone with President Biden on Sunday. The two are meeting face-to-face this afternoon, and their talks may shape the effort to pay the country's bills. The U.S. is a little more than a week away from default according to the Treasury Department. House Republicans have said they won't allow the government to pay its obligations unless they get concessions on future spending cuts.

INSKEEP: So how did McCarthy place himself in the center of this? NPR congressional reporter Barbara Sprunt is here. Good morning.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What position is McCarthy in today?

SPRUNT: McCarthy's in a strong position. He told reporters yesterday he was encouraged that he and Biden had at least agreed to meet again today in person after talks among their staff sort of broke down at different points over the last few days. While Biden was in Japan, he said he was frustrated that Republicans in negotiations were demanding more and more. Previously, both sides had suggested that there could be room for compromise on certain issues - clawing back billions in unused COVID money, permitting reform, and of course, the sticking point continues to be on spending. Here's Speaker McCarthy yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: I've been very clear to him from the very beginning. We have to spend less money than we spent last year.

SPRUNT: But look, this is a negotiation. Both sides have to prove to their bases that they're not just going to fold on issues that matter to their constituents. So some of this back-and-forth is not unheard of.

INSKEEP: Barbara, how did McCarthy get in a position to negotiate face-to-face with the president today - the president who said he would not negotiate over raising the debt limit?

SPRUNT: McCarthy has done something that I believe a lot of Democrats weren't sure he'd be able to do, which was pass a partisan bill on raising the debt limit that also tackled spending cuts. He has a very narrow majority in the House. It took him 15 rounds of voting to get elected as speaker. And I think because of that, some Democrats questioned whether he'd be able to unite the conference in this way. You might recall that months ago, President Biden and other top Democratic congressional leaders kept saying, show us your plan. Show us your plan - to House Republicans saying, you know, you want these spending cuts, but where's your actual plan? And then, of course, House Republicans did pass a plan. And that sort of forced Biden to engage in a way that he said he wouldn't before.

INSKEEP: OK. The two leaders said they had a productive talk yesterday. Are they getting closer, then, to an actual agreement?

SPRUNT: It sounds cliche, but the clock is ticking here. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has been very explicit that the U.S. could run out of money to pay its bills as soon as June 1, and that's less than two weeks away, as you said. Another note on the timeline that makes it tricky - both chambers would have to pass a bill in a very short amount of time. McCarthy has said the House needs 72 hours to read the bill and vote on it, and then it would go to the Senate. So it really is crunch time.

INSKEEP: Well, here's a vital question, though. To avoid default, as you noted, it would seem to be necessary for the two sides to compromise. And the most extreme members of McCarthy's caucus aren't interested in compromise. They're pretty explicit about that. Is McCarthy willing to defy them to pass something a little bit less than the extreme?

SPRUNT: You know, the hard-liners on both sides of the aisle are not likely to support whatever compromise comes out of this. I think that's fair to say at this point in the negotiations. Each side is going to have to give something that, in all likelihood, the far right and the far left of these conferences are not going to like. But the numbers being what they are, even if those factions don't support a bill, there is still a path for passage.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Barbara Sprunt. Thanks so much.

SPRUNT: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.