Ahead of President Joe Biden’s meeting about the nation’s debt ceiling Wednesday with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., it’s clear some negotiation will be required, Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts told reporters. 

McCarthy’s fellow House Republicans’ metaphor is that they will be “using the debt ceiling fight today, this week, this spring, as an opportunity to put a wrench in the president’s plan to expand the government,” Roberts said Wednesday morning.

“What we’re looking for is an absolute rejection of a real misnomer, which is there is something called a ‘clean’ debt limit increase,” said Roberts, who leads the conservative think tank that is the parent organization of The Daily Signal. “There has to be first and foremost a dollar-for-dollar correspondence to whatever dollar amount is added to the debt ceiling with spending cuts.”

A poll last week found 61% of Americans favor offsetting an increase in the amount of debt with spending cuts. 

The debt ceiling is the federal limit of how much the federal government is allowed to borrow. The U.S. national debt is $31.5 trillion. The government reached the debt limit of $31.4 trillion on Jan. 19.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has said raising the debt ceiling is “something that should be done without conditions,” and added that the White House is “not going to be negotiating over the debt ceiling.” 

Long term, Roberts said, lawmakers must look at more responsible defense spending and reforms to how much debt the Federal Reserve may incur. Heritage’s president expressed support for both McCarthy and the House’s GOP committee chairmen, while voicing disappointment in Senate Republicans. 

Roberts said that the nation’s safety-net programs should be strengthened and reformed. This assertion comes as McCarthy and other Republicans have fended off unfounded allegations from Biden and fellow Democrats that the House’s new Republican majority wants to cut Social Security and Medicare. Roberts said reforms to safety-net programs will deliver stronger “21st century programs.”

No lawmaker supports a default on debt service payments, Roberts said, and he projected the chance of one at only 1% or 2%. 

“We understand there are philosophical and partisan differences between the president and the speaker, but it’s good they are meeting and it reveals that even though the president has been fairly steadfast rhetorically in saying he wouldn’t negotiate, that there might be some negotiating going on,” he said. 

McCarthy is doing the right thing at the moment, Roberts said, but expressed disappointment with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“We are deeply disappointed. All of Heritage, our 700,000 supporters, are deeply disappointed in the lack of support that Leader McConnell is offering Speaker McCarthy,” Roberts said. “I can just tell you, as someone who spends as much time outside D.C. as I can, that moderate conservatives to strident conservatives—who are really driving the movement right now—they believe that is a betrayal.”

Roberts acknowledged that some may be surprised that a conservative think tank would call for more responsible spending, but stressed that’s consistent with conservatives’ strong-on-defense principles: 

We care so deeply about America’s peace through strength that when we look at the fiscal situation in 2023 in contrast with the fiscal situation in 1983, I don’t see how those who are dyed-in-the-wool Reaganites can have faith in the U.S. Defense Department’s fighting a one-front war, let alone a two-front war, if there continues to be an absence of accountability on so much of the spending. 

It’s important to stop spending military dollars on wrongheaded diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, but that won’t be enough, Heritage’s president said. 

“We’ve got to have a hard conversation about which missiles and munitions programs … need to be in place for what I hope never happens, which seems to be an increasing likelihood with each passing month, which is some sort of confrontation with China,” Roberts said. 

Answering a reporter’s question on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, he noted that Germany isn’t meeting its NATO obligations even as it criticizes the United States. 

“That needs to be tied to Congress—not the president of the United States—telling NATO allies it’s time to pony up, [and] chief among them … would be our friends in Germany,” Roberts said. He added: “Heritage is going to drive really hard until we see Germans in particular forced by our Congress to pull their weight and shut their damned mouths.” 

Another priority is limiting the amount of debt the Federal Reserve may accumulate, Roberts said.

“We are trying to impose handcuffs on the Federal Reserve with the amount of debt they can incur,” Roberts said. “We have to have a statutory cap on assets. Congress has to return to running the show when it comes to fiscal responsibility.” 

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