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Breakthrough moments of the debt ceiling negotiations, according to a lead negotiator

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A city in which praise does not frequently float across partisan lines. So it was notable when House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, had this to say about a top Biden administration official amid some of the most contentious debt ceiling negotiations in memory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: Highly respect them, their knowledge. They've been - Shalanda's worked on aprops (ph). Everybody in this place knows her, respects her greatly.

KELLY: Aprops meaning appropriations, and the Shalanda he's talking about - Shalanda Young, President Biden's budget director. Young brings more than a decade of experience on the House Appropriations Committee to her job - job in which she served as a top White House negotiator to help pull the U.S. back from the brink of a historic default. Shalanda Young, it is so nice to see you in our studio. Welcome.

SHALANDA YOUNG: Thanks, Mary Louise. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: I want to ask at what point - at what moment in the debt ceiling talks - like, how stuck and hopeless-seeming were they when President Biden said, Shalanda, take the ball; please run?

YOUNG: Look. We were stuck, and it was clear the speaker wanted a different model to move the ball along. And the president offered up - I think that's an appropriate way to put it...

KELLY: (Laughter).

YOUNG: ...His long-time counselor, Steve Ricchetti. And, you know, when Steve speaks - almost no one knows President Biden better than Steve Ricchetti - and also offered me up as a longtime House staffer who knows a lot of the players we were going to have to deal with and knows the issues.

KELLY: So you all were tag-teaming. And how did you divvy that up? Were you, like, a good-cop, bad-cop duo?

YOUNG: Depended on the day, depended on the hour, what needed to be discussed. Clearly, some of the nitty-gritty of budget numbers, I took the lead. Steve delivered hard truths in the room, especially knowing where the president wanted to go. So it was a good combination, along with two of our other colleagues - Louisa Terrell, who's also known the president a very long time, and Michael Linden, who works with me with the speaker's team.

KELLY: Yeah. And what was the breakthrough moment? I mean, describe that after weeks of talks that were right up against the edge of this cliff.

YOUNG: I've done a lot of these, and I never see, like, a big moment. You just want to see progress every day. Even when you've taken a couple steps back, can you get it back on track? How fast can you get it back on track? You have a timeline - this one, when we ran out of the ability to pay our debts.

KELLY: Because Janet Yellen was warning, it's coming, and it's coming really fast.

YOUNG: And she warned every day. So we all knew, and we knew the time frame. So I don't know if there was one breakthrough moment, but as long as we kept meeting, as long as we kept talking, as long as one line of communication was open. So I never had that, it's not going to happen moment because failure wasn't an option.

KELLY: Yeah. So you got to a deal. And I want to step back and ask how you see the stakes. I mean, there were numbers in play. You were trying to get the math to line up and everybody on the same page in terms of the math. But bigger picture, do these negotiations say - what do they say about the direction our country is or should be headed in?

YOUNG: You know, it always strikes me - I've been in this town 22 years. You know, debt ceiling brinksmanship is a fairly newer construct that I wish we did not have. It was something Congress did without much fanfare because it was just a part of their duty. And you saw that change in 2011. And we are at the place we are. We can complain about it, or we do what we just did, which is work out a deal that the majority of members on the Democratic and Republican side agreed to. And I think the vote was validating to this model that there could be compromise. We're in divided government. That's what the American people expect.

KELLY: All right. When you say we are at the place we are, it makes me wonder, how do we avoid doing this all over again? Nobody wants to do this every two years. But is there a way you get off that track? I'm sure you don't. You're looking at me like...

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: ...Please, can we not do this again every two years?

YOUNG: I have a 19-month-old. I can't do math as quickly even though I'm the budget director. But I can promise you a kindergartner it still wouldn't be fun to do that again. Look. The goal was not just to avoid default, which would have been the first ever in this country, risking 8 million jobs of Americans, many of them working class, middle class. You have to keep that in mind. But it was also do this for an extended amount of time, not to put the country through this for a long time. And we were able to accomplish that, getting a deal till 2025.

KELLY: Yeah. But, again, my question - how do we not do this every two years?

YOUNG: Look. It's congressional responsibility to do this, and we're going to keep reminding them of this. Look. We were going to have to talk about budgets at some point. Republicans wanted to bring that conversation forward and have that. And I think we ended up in a place you would expect in divided government, whether we have that conversation now or in three months.

KELLY: Yeah. We've been talking about numbers and math, and I will inject one, which is the national debt stands at $31 trillion and growing. Is there no point at which the government just needs to say no more, put the brakes on spending?

YOUNG: Let's remember something. Like, I reject this idea that when you talk about budgets that you don't talk about revenue. What does the government bring in? Who are you bringing it in from? Are billionaires in this country paying what nurses and firefighters are paying as a percentage of their pay? Do we pay income - when people go to work and kill themselves, are we taxing that the same as people who have wealth in stocks? We are not. And the president has made very clear that while we had a limited conversation to talk about real deficit reduction, to really get the debt under control, we have to have a real conversation about revenues and the tax unfairness in this country.

KELLY: Yeah. But in the minute or so we have left, the revenues are clearly not keeping up. I mean, again, it's a $31 trillion deficit, not surplus.

YOUNG: Yeah. This is why in the president's budget we put forth several tax proposals. We kept bringing these up in conversations with Republicans. And look. We had to avoid default, but we've not given up. We're coming back. We think corporations, the top 1%, are not paying the same percentage. Like, there're some studies saying that billionaires, hundreds of millionaires pay 8% of their income in taxes compared to nurses who pay 20%. That's not fair. And it's not bringing up - in enough revenues to keep up with what we need to do in this country.

KELLY: Shalanda Young is the director of the Office of Management and Budget. We appreciate you stopping by. I wish you some sleep (laughter) and some quality time...

YOUNG: Thank you so much.

KELLY: ...With that toddler of yours. Thank you.

YOUNG: Nineteen months, no sleep.

(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.