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Biden’s Debt Ceiling Strategy: Win in the Fine Print

At one point in the talks, administration officials offered to include in the deal more than 100 relief programs from which they were willing to rescind money. The final list spanned 20 pages of a 99-page bill, and Mr. McCarthy championed it on the House floor. But because much of the money was repurposed for other spending, the net savings added up to only about $11 billion over two years. One of the programs had a remaining balance of just $40.

Many Democrats remain furious that the deal included new work requirements that could push 750,000 people off food stamps, which the Biden team begrudgingly concluded it had to accept.

That measure alone could have tanked Democratic support for the deal in Congress, officials knew. So they sought to counterbalance it with efforts to expand food stamp eligibility for veterans, the homeless and others, which Republicans agreed to do. The budget office concluded that the changes would actually add recipients to the program, on net.

Some Democrats and progressive groups have sharply criticized Mr. Biden for negotiating over the debt limit at all, denouncing the spending cuts and work requirements and saying he cemented Republicans’ ability to ransom the borrowing limit whenever a Democrat occupies the White House.

Republican negotiators sold the deal as a game-changing blow to Mr. Biden’s spending ambitions. “They absolutely have tire tracks on them in this negotiation,” Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana said before the House vote on Wednesday.

Mr. Biden views it differently. As the Senate prepared to pass the agreement on Thursday evening, he huddled with his chief of staff, Jeffrey D. Zients, along with Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president, and other aides, in Mr. Zients’s office in the West Wing of the White House. Mr. Biden asked them what you might call a scorecard question: What percentage of Democrats in the House had voted for the deal, and what share were expected to in the Senate?

When Mr. Ricchetti told him the number of Democrats would be larger, in both chambers, than the share of Republicans supporting the deal, Mr. Biden was pleased. It was validation, in his view, that he had cut a good deal.


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