President Biden sought to drive a wedge among Republicans in their escalating dispute over spending and debt on Wednesday, effectively reaching out to moderates in hopes of convincing them to break away from Speaker Kevin McCarthy rather than risk triggering a national default that could throw the economy into a tailspin.
Appearing in a competitive suburb with a vulnerable House Republican in his sights, Mr. Biden accused Mr. McCarthy of pursuing a radical strategy at the behest of the “extreme” wing of his party loyal to former President Donald J. Trump, putting the country in economic jeopardy in a way that he said reasonable Republicans of his own era in the Senate would not have done.
“They’ve taken control of the House,” Mr. Biden said of this wing to a friendly audience at SUNY Westchester Community College in New York’s Hudson Valley. “They have a speaker who has his job because he yielded to the, quote, MAGA element of the party,” he added.
Those hard-right Republicans, Mr. Biden said, are “literally, not figuratively, holding the economy hostage by threatening to default on our nation’s debt, debt we’ve already incurred, we’ve already incurred over the last couple hundred years, unless we give into their threats and demands.”
The trip seemed aimed at least in part at peeling off even a few House Republicans to force the speaker’s hand. Legislation that Mr. McCarthy pushed through the House last month linking an increase in the debt ceiling to significant spending restraints passed with just one vote to spare, so even a relatively small mutiny would complicate Mr. McCarthy’s position.
Mr. Biden singled out Representative Mike Lawler, a local Republican congressman sitting in the front row in the audience on Wednesday, praising him as a more rational member of his party. “Mike’s on the other team,” Mr. Biden said, “but you know what? Mike is the kind of guy that when I was in the Congress, there was a kind of Republican I was used to dealing with. He’s not one of these MAGA Republicans.”
The president’s trip came a day after he hosted Mr. McCarthy and other congressional leaders at the White House to discuss the crisis. The session produced no breakthroughs, but the leaders agreed to have their staffs meet every day and to reconvene themselves on Friday.
The federal government has reached the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling set by law and the Treasury Department estimates that it will run out of ways to avoid default as soon as June 1. Unless Congress acts by then, the nation will fail to pay its obligations for the first time in history, with potentially devastating consequences for an already fragile economy. Mr. McCarthy insists that any debt ceiling increase be tied to spending cuts, while Mr. Biden rejects linking the two; he has agreed to negotiate deficit controls separately.
The annual deficit reached $1.375 trillion last year, up from $983 billion in 2019, the last year before the Covid-19 pandemic prompted vast relief spending, and is projected to double in the next decade. Even aside from the linkage with the debt ceiling, the two sides are drastically apart on how to address the red ink. Mr. Biden has proposed a budget that would reduce projected deficits by nearly $3 trillion over 10 years by increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, while Mr. McCarthy’s plan would scale back deficits by $4.8 trillion over a decade largely through cuts in discretionary programs.
In speaking to a swing-voting New York suburb, Mr. Biden seemed to have two audiences — voters outside the capital who may not be paying as much attention to the debate and Mr. Lawler. A 36-year-old former political operative and first-term Republican, Mr. Lawler is an obvious target for the White House to try to sway. He ousted Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, then the chairman of House Democrats’ campaign operation, in a district that Mr. Biden won by 10 percentage points.
In Washington, Mr. Lawler has positioned himself as a serious-minded moderate, breaking with his party on some cultural issues while supporting Mr. McCarthy’s debt ceiling and spending proposal. Both parties view him as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in 2024, and Democrats are already lining up millions of dollars and potential candidates to defeat him.
For now, Mr. Lawler appears to be toeing a careful line between his party’s leaders and the president. When the White House reached out with an invitation to the event that many in the G.O.P. would have shunned, he promptly accepted. In media interviews before and after the speech, Mr. Lawler reiterated he would not support a default. But he also chastised Mr. Biden for not engaging with Mr. McCarthy sooner and insisted on broad spending cuts.
At this community college just a few hundred feet from his congressional district border, Mr. Lawler nodded politely when the president mentioned him while onstage on Wednesday. “I don’t want to get him in trouble by saying anything nice about him — or negative about him,” Mr. Biden said jokingly. “But thanks for coming, Mike. Thanks for being here. It’s the way we used to do it.”
Speaking with reporters after the speech, Mr. Lawler said that he and Mr. Biden had a “very cordial” and “very frank” conversation backstage before the event. “He told me he wants me to know he wasn’t coming here to put pressure on me in any way,” said Mr. Lawler, who seemed to welcome the president’s remarks onstage about him not being a MAGA Republican. “You heard his comments today. I don’t think he put too much pressure on me.”
Mr. Lawler reaffirmed his vote for Mr. McCarthy’s legislation. “We need to get our fiscal house in order,” he said. “And so yes, spending needs to be tied to the debt ceiling. And that is the message I conveyed to the president.” But he repeatedly called for a bipartisan solution.
Local Democrats were frustrated that the president wooed Mr. Lawler rather than assail him. Mondaire Jones, a former congressman positioning himself to challenge Mr. Lawler next year, said after the speech that Mr. Lawler had done nothing to justify being described “as not being a MAGA Republican.” Mr. Jones added: “He has voted for everything Kevin McCarthy has asked him to vote for at the request of the MAGA extremists.”
Indeed, Republicans seized on Mr. Biden’s comments to rebut the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s attacks on the G.O.P. congressman. “Despite the D.C.C.C.’s repeated lies regarding Congressman Lawler’s positions,” the National Republican Congressional Committee said in a statement, “Lawler is a pragmatic member of Congress who is working to negotiate and avoid a government default.”