Biden cancels trips to Australia, Papua New Guinea; Hiroshima visit still on

by May 17, 2023Featured Article, News

U.S. President Joe Biden is curtailing his upcoming trip to the Indo-Pacific, scrapping what was to be a historic stop in Papua New Guinea as well as a visit to Australia for a gathering with fellow leaders of the so-called Quad partnership so he can focus on debt limit talks in Washington, according to three people familiar with the matter.

The cancellation is a foreign policy setback for an administration that has made putting a greater focus on the Pacific region central to its global outreach.

Biden still plans to depart on Wednesday for Hiroshima, Japan, for a Group of Seven summit with leaders from some of the world’s major economies. He will return to the U.S. on Sunday, according to the people familiar the matter who requested anonymity to discuss the yet to be formally announced decision.

Biden had been scheduled to travel on to Papua New Guinea to meet with Pacific Island leaders and then to Australia for a meeting of the leaders of the Quad partnership, made up of the U.S., Australia, India and Japan. The Papua New Guinea stop would have been the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to the island country of more than 9 million people.

The Quad partnership first formed during the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed some 230,000 people. Since coming into office, Biden has tried to reinvigorate the Quad as part of his broader effort to put greater U.S. focus on the Pacific and counter increasing economic and military assertiveness by China in the region.

The president’s decision was confirmed as Biden wrapped up a meeting on Tuesday afternoon with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jefferies for talks on the debt limit standoff.

Earlier Tuesday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that the White House was considering curtailing the president’s trip to return to the U.S. for debt ceiling talks but had not made a decision on the matter.

“We wouldn’t have to have this conversation. I wouldn’t have to answer these questions if Congress just did the right thing,” Kirby said.

Kirby noted that Biden would meet with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi while in Japan as well as Pacific Island leaders. Biden already had plans to hold a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during the Hiroshima visit.

With the brief stop in Papua New Guinea to meet with Pacific Island leaders, Biden had hoped to demonstrate that the United States is committed to remaining engaged for the long term in the Pacific Islands.

The area has received diminished attention from the U.S. in the aftermath of the Cold War and China has increasingly filled the vacuum — through increased aid, development and security cooperation. Biden has said that he’s committed to changing that dynamic.

Last September, Biden hosted leaders from more than a dozen Pacific Island countries at the White House, announcing a new strategy to help to assist the region on climate change and maritime security. His administration also recently opened embassies in the Solomon Islands and Tonga, and has plans to open one in Kiribati.

Debt ceiling talks

Biden is discussing the debt ceiling with congressional leaders at the White House with reverberations across the globe as early outlines of a potential deal begin to emerge from painstakingly slow negotiations.

Raising the stakes, the Tuesday afternoon session came as Biden was to depart for the summit where the U.S. leadership will be on the world stage. The president and House Speaker McCarthy are trying to strike a budget deal before the U.S. Treasury runs out of cash to keep paying the nation’s bills, which could occur as soon as June 1.

While Biden has remained upbeat that “we’ll be able to do this,” McCarthy is prodding the president to move faster. The Republican speaker says they need an agreement soon to avoid default. Expectations are low that a deal is imminent. It is more likely that staff talks will continue while the president is overseas.

“How much is too much?” McCarthy said Tuesday about the nation’s $31 trillion debt load, as he pushed for stricter work requirements on government aid recipients as a way to cut spending.

McCarthy stopped short of suggesting Biden cancel his whole trip abroad. But he said at the Capitol, “We’ve got 16 more days to go, I don’t think I’d spend eight days out of the country.”

It’s the second time in a week that Biden has met with McCarthy of California and other congressional leaders at the White House. Biden is confronting a politically divided Congress for the first time on the debt ceiling, a test for both the president and McCarthy, the new speaker, as they work to stave off an economic crisis that could come from a federal default.

Even as the Democratic president and the Republican speaker box around the politics of the issue — with Biden insisting he’s not negotiating over the debt ceiling and McCarthy working to extract spending cuts — various areas of possible agreement appear to be emerging.

Talks have been under way at the Capitol for much of the past week, closed-door discussions where White House and congressional staff are discussing what it would take to craft a budget deal that would unlock a separate vote to lift the nation’s borrowing capacity to avoid a devastating default.

Among the items on the table: clawing back some $30 billion in untapped COVID-19 money, imposing future budget caps, changing permit regulations to ease energy development and putting bolstered work requirements on recipients of government aid, according to those familiar with the talks.

Democrats are growing concerned about the idea of putting new work requirements for government aid recipients on the table after Biden suggested he may be open to such changes.

The idea of imposing more work requirements was “resoundingly” rejected by House Democrats at a morning caucus meeting, according to one Democrat at the private meeting and granted anonymity to discuss it.

Progressive lawmakers in particular have raised the issue. Rep Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has raised concerns but not yet spoken directly to Biden about the issue.

“We want to make sure that these negotiations do not include spending cuts, do not include work requirements, things that would harm people, people in rural areas, black, brown, indigenous folks,” Jayapal said Tuesday.

Democratic leader Jeffries’ staff sought to reassure them in talks late Monday, while a separate group of more centrist Democrats have signaled to their moderate Republican colleagues they are prepared to work something out to reach a debt ceiling deal, aides said Tuesday.

While McCarthy McCarthy has complained the talks are slow-going, saying he first met with Biden more than 100 days ago Biden has said it took McCarthy all this time to put forward his own proposal after Republicans failed to produce their own budget this year.

Biden has insisted Republicans must rule out default and consider budget issues separate from the need to raise the nation’s debt limit.

Though Biden did signal over the weekend that he could be open to tougher work requirements for certain government aid programs, the White House has indicated he is only referring to cash assistance programs and not food stamps or anything like Medicaid that would take away people’s health care coverage.

The debt limit must be lifted, as has been done countless times before, to allow continued borrowing to pay already accrued bills.

Compounding pressure on Washington to strike a deal, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Monday that agency estimates are unchanged on the possible X-date when the U.S. could run out of cash — perhaps as early as June 1.

But Yellen, in a letter to the House and Senate, left some opening for a possible time extension on a national default, stating that “the actual date Treasury exhausts extraordinary measures could be a number of days or weeks later than these estimates.”

“It is essential that Congress act as soon as possible,” Yellen said Tuesday in remarks before the Independent Community Bankers of America.

In my assessment – and that of economists across the board – a U.S. default would generate an economic and financial catastrophe,” she said.

Time is dwindling. Congress has just a few days when both the House and Senate are in session to pass legislation.

“It’s time for the principals to get more engaged, get their closers out there,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Republican whip.

Details of a potential budget deal remain politically daunting, and it’s not at all clear they go far enough to satisfy McCarthy’s hard-right faction in the House or would be acceptable to a sizable number of Democrats whose votes would almost certainly be needed to secure any final deal.

Republicans led by McCarthy want Biden to accept their proposal to roll back spending, cap future outlays and make other policy changes in the package passed last month by House Republicans. McCarthy says the House is the only chamber that has taken action to raise the debt ceiling. But the House bill is almost certain to fail in the Senate, controlled by Democrats, and Biden has said he would veto it.

An increase in the debt limit would not authorize new federal spending. It would only allow for borrowing to pay for what Congress has already approved.

  • Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.*

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