WASHINGTON – Baton Rouge was at the table to cobble together a deal that averted an unprecedented U.S. default that could have plunged the nation and the world into economic recession.
The brokered bill, which passed the U.S. House late Wednesday, was finally approved by the U.S. Senate late Thursday night and is expected to be signed into law by President Joe Biden before Monday, when the nation would have run out of the money necessary to pay its debts.
Months of partisan bickering had kept Congress from allowing the administration to borrow more. When the two sides sat down to hammer out a compromise during 12 days of meetings at the U.S. Capitol and the White House, two Baton Rouge-area officials played prominent roles.
A lead player for the House Republicans was U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, 51, who grew up in Baton Rouge and graduated Catholic High School. A key negotiator for the Democratic White House was Shalanda Young, the 45-year-old director of the Office of Management and Budget, who grew up in Clinton and graduated Scotlandville Magnet High School.
“Our history of being from the same area, same kind of attitude and culture, growing up and understanding we are going to fight hard and understanding we going to play hard, I think it did help with the negotiations,” Graves said.
Young said the most important part of any negotiation is understanding the bottom line of the folks on the other side of the table. “I want to know their value statements and they need to know mine. And we have to find a middle ground. They shouldn’t have to compromise their values, and neither should we,” Young said.
A turning point in the political standoff came in late April, when House Republicans, largely without Democratic help, passed legislation crafted in part by Graves to cut federal spending and give the federal government the authority to borrow for a year. Biden had been holding out on negotiations since February, arguing that Congress needed to lift the debt cap to avoid default before he would talk about spending cuts.
On May 9, the president invited McCarthy and other congressional leaders to meet, which began a series of “staff level” meetings that involved Young and Graves.
Republican negotiators tested the White House’s resolve about going up to the June 5 default deadline without discussing a cap on spending.
“We kind of called their bluff, and we were really serious and not going to play games,” Graves said. “We weren’t going to agree to anything that wasn’t going to address reduced spending.”
Graves said progress was incremental. Some days, they would move forward; other days, they would retreat.
He likened it to buying a used car. After agreeing to a price, the salesperson checks with the sales manager, comes back with a different deal and bargaining begins anew. “I think it was more of a tactic on their part,” Graves said.
On May 19, the Republicans stopped the talks when the White House wouldn’t agree to further limit spending. But over that weekend, Biden and McCarthy spoke and got the negotiation back on track. “The fact that the president wanted to re-engage, showed us we were in the right zone and they needed reset. That was a helpful moment, said Rep. Patrick McHenry, the North Carolina Republican who negotiated with Graves, at a press briefing Wednesday.
Just as Graves would have to persuade factions of Republicans who wanted more spending cuts, Young would have craft a deal that would pass muster with Democrats.
“My job is to tell members what’s in the bill,” Young said Tuesday at a White House briefing. “You get into trouble when you try to tell members what their opinion is. Every member should have whatever opinion. Our job is to say, ‘This is what’s in the bill. This is how some of the worst things Republicans wanted were mitigated.’”
A self-described pragmatist, Young came into the talks assuming House Republicans would work towards a reasonable accord. Biden directed her not agree to anything that would increase poverty.
Prior to her White House appointment, Young was staff director for the House Appropriations Committee and was part of the closed-door negotiations to end the 2011 debt limit stalemate.
“This agreement represents a compromise. Hard choices had to be made,” she said.
When Young appeared behind closed doors to brief the Democratic Caucus on Wednesday afternoon, she was given a standing ovation, said Minority Leader Hakeem Jefferies, D-New York.
Debt limit negotiations came up Friday during the State of the Coast conference in New Orleans.
Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor who now is Biden’s top aide on infrastructure, joked this week about the negotiations.
“I heard that they had a real problem, and that people stopped talking to each other. And then what happened was we had to offer king cake and some gumbo to get them back in the room so they could start talking again,” Landrieu said. “That's my story and I'm sticking to it. The point that I want to make to you is Louisiana is represented really, really well in Washington on both the executive and legislative branches.”
Graves added, “It took two Louisiana folks, Shalanda Young and myself. And we did have battles over gumbo and roux recipes and all that. But it took us working together to ultimately get there.”
Staff writer Mike Smith contributed to this report.