Who’s who in the debt limit fight: Meet the five negotiators working to save the US from default
May 17, 2023, 1:37 PM | Updated: May 24, 2023, 10:00 am
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy have turned to a select group of negotiators to work out a deal to increase the nation’s borrowing authority and avoid the economic carnage that could ensue if the U.S. defaults on its debts.
The negotiators are racing to beat a deadline of June 1. That’s when the Treasury Department says the government could begin defaulting on its debts for the first time in history. White House and congressional aides are meeting on a daily basis.
Here’s a look at the “closers” — those Biden and McCarthy have appointed to get a deal done:
REP. GARRET GRAVES, Louisiana Republican
Graves, 51, is serving his fifth term in office representing a congressional district that includes Baton Rouge, which he won with more than 80% of the vote in November. He had entertained the idea of running for governor in Louisiana but opted out in March.
When McCarthy was making his bid to win the House speaker’s gavel, Graves was one of the allies often seen meeting with Republican holdouts and working to win them over.
In many respects, he has carried that work over to the debt ceiling debate. Rep. Dusty Johnson, chair of a group called the Republican Main Street Caucus, describes Graves as a “facilitator” who soothes tensions in meetings. The group Johnson chairs is one of five such caucuses within the House GOP conference, sometimes referred to as the “five families.”
“He’s really been the individual that has helped bring people together in crafting the bill itself,” McCarthy said on Wednesday. “So he has a clear understanding of where members are.”
McCarthy added: “He understands policy. Many people would call him a policy wonk.”
Before joining Congress, Graves served as chair of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana, which led efforts after Hurricane Katrina to protect the state from future hurricanes through improved flood control, restored wetlands and other projects. Before that, he served more than a decade as a congressional staffer, first as an intern for Louisiana Sen. John Breaux and then as an aide to Rep. Billy Tauzin. He also advised members in both chambers with stints as a committee aide.
REP. PATRICK MCHENRY, North Carolina Republican
The 10-term House member with close ties to the leadership is a lawmaker tested in the battles of Washington and respected throughout the disparate GOP conference, perhaps why McCarthy tapped him to represent him in the talks with the Biden administration. Like Graves, McHenry was a pivotal lieutenant of McCarthy in the lengthy speaker’s fight in January.
McHenry was considered a potential contender for a leadership job in the new House Republican majority. But he instead opted for the chairmanship of the House Financial Services Committee, a role that has him at the center of Washington’s response to multiple bank failures and as a key spokesman for House Republicans on economic matters.
McHenry has taken a firm line in talks with the White House on the debt limit, pushing the Republicans’ position that the government needs to curb spending if GOP lawmakers are to agree to raising the borrowing authority.
Elected to Congress at just 29 years old, McHenry served in the North Carolina Legislature and in the George W. Bush administration before his time on Capitol Hill. The 47-year-old McHenry also has a fashion trademark.
“I’m just like a little guy with a bow tie walking around doing my thing,” McHenry told reporters after one recent meeting with fellow Republican negotiators.
STEVE RICCHETTI, counselor to the president
Ricchetti is one of the president’s most trusted advisers, one of his top aides during Biden’s time as vice president and now in the White House. In the Biden administration, Ricchetti has been relied on as someone who can clinch a bipartisan deal, including on a sweeping infrastructure bill, one of the big achievements of the Biden presidency.
In the final days of negotiations for that bill, Biden tapped Ricchetti to close out an agreement with then-Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who led talks on behalf of GOP senators. The two Ohioans finalized the infrastructure deal, which would go on to pass the House and Senate with broad margins and be signed into law by Biden in November 2021.
During the months of infrastructure negotiations, Biden praised the “skillful negotiation” of his senior aides and Cabinet officials — a team that was led by Ricchetti.
Vital to Biden’s reputation as bipartisan dealmaker, Ricchetti maintains good relationships with many key Republicans, particularly on Capitol Hill. But the former lobbyist’s ties to K Street, as well as the lobbying of his brother, Jeff, have attracted criticism from some on the left.
Ricchetti, an occasional golf partner for Biden, also served in senior roles in the Clinton White House.
LOUISA TERRELL, director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs
A regular presence on Capitol Hill, Terrell has been Biden’s point person for lawmakers, serving under a president who came to the executive branch as a creature of the Senate.
She was Biden’s deputy chief of staff in the Senate and later was a special assistant for legislative affairs for President Barack Obama. She was also chief of staff to Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who was one of Biden’s opponents for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
Her Biden ties run deep. Terrell said in an interview with CNN last year that she first got to know the Biden family when she was just 5 years old, having met the future president’s son, Beau Biden, in their kindergarten class in Wilmington, Delaware. Beau died in 2015 of glioblastoma.
“You want to represent what … the president wants you to do,” Terrell said in the CNN interview. “And then there’s always this other question of, what would Beau do? And I think of those things as kind of intertwined and they’re part of the background driver of how we do the work.”
Terrell also headed the Biden Foundation at its launch in 2017, an organization meant as a platform for the then-former vice president to continue to promote his top priorities such as cancer research and support for military families. Terrell also worked at Facebook, now known as Meta.
SHALANDA YOUNG, director of the Office of Management and Budget
Young, a veteran congressional staffer with warm relationships on both sides of the aisle, comes into the debt-limit fight armed with years of experience negotiating the nitty gritty details of federal government spending.
Before her administration job, Young was the staff director on the House Appropriations Committee, on the front lines of talks over annual funding bills and efforts to avert government shutdowns. Well-regarded by both Democrats and Republicans, she’s carried those relationships over to the executive branch as Biden’s chief person on federal funding.
She was initially tapped for OMB’s deputy director position, but was ultimately elevated to the top job after Biden’s first pick withdrew.
Soon after that withdrawal, the three top House Democrats at the time — then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina — urged Biden to nominate Young, unusually public advocacy by House leaders for a Cabinet selection.
Young is the first Black woman to lead OMB. After she served as the agency’s acting director for much of 2021, Biden said as he formally nominated her that Young has “continued to impress me, and congressional leaders as well.”
In addition to her own historic role, Young also interacts with a quartet of women leading the two congressional spending committees. It is the first time in history that the four leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are women.
“We don’t have to start from scratch,” Young said in an Associated Press interview of her relationship with the appropriations leaders. “I became who I am on the committee that they now lead. So that’s a special relationship.”