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Biden addresses nation after avoiding catastrophic default: ‘The stakes could not have been higher’

<i>Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images</i><br/>
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

By Kevin Liptak, CNN

Washington (CNN) — President Joe Biden declared bipartisanship alive and well during his first ever Oval Office address on Friday, pointing to the compromise measure that raises the federal borrowing limit and avoids a catastrophic default as evidence his sometimes-mocked views of Washington are not a thing of the past.

Addressing the nation from behind the Resolute Desk, Biden sought to harness the vintage presidential setting to make the case for a style of governing he insisted was not only still relevant but essential to avoiding disaster.

Encouraging Americans to “treat each other with dignity and respect” and to “stop shouting,” he said the package he brokered with Republicans ensures economic progress going forward and amounts to a “crisis averted” – even though it sparked fury from some in his own party.

And he vowed to continue working toward priorities that were left out – including raising taxes on the wealthy – in an implicit reelection message.

“Passing this budget agreement was critical. The stakes could not have been higher,” he said.

It’s been several years since Americans have witnessed the type of seated, direct-to-camera speech Biden delivered Friday. Past presidents have employed the Oval Office to deliver statements during moments of crisis, like after the terror attacks on 9/11 or when the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

Biden was speaking not amid a crisis but having avoided one. Yet by evoking a style of speech used by presidents for decades, he seemed to also harken to an era of government that did not look down on attempts at compromise.

“I know bipartisanship is hard and unity is hard, but we can never stop trying, because at moments like this one, the ones we just faced where the American economy and the world economy is at risk of collapsing, there is no other way,” he said in his speech.

The decision to speak in the most formal of presidential settings came after weeks of fraught negotiations over the borrowing limit. The deal ultimately struck between Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy raises the debt ceiling for two years, freezes domestic spending, imposes some new work requirements on food stamps and alters certain energy permitting rules.

Biden had intentionally avoided declaring victory after brokering the agreement, partly in the hopes of securing the necessary Republican votes for the bill to pass.

That tactic appeared to work; the measure cleared the House and Senate in bipartisan fashion. Biden said he planned to sign the bill Saturday and called the engagements with his Republican interlocutors “respectful.”

He began his evening address by underscoring his efforts to work across the aisle to secure a positive outcome – an objective he noted had been met with intense skepticism.

“When I ran for president, I was told that the days of bipartisanship is over and Democrats and Republicans could no longer work together. I refuse to believe that,” Biden said. “The only way American democracy can function is through compromise and consensus.”

The president said neither Republicans nor Democrats “got everything they wanted but the American people got what they needed.”

“We averted an economic crisis and an economic collapse,” he said.

The Treasury Department has said it will run out of cash to pay its bills in full and on time on Monday. Economists had warned of severe consequences of a national default.

Despite the bill’s passage, the legislation known as the Bipartisan Budget Agreement had detractors on both the left and right. Many liberals and conservatives voted against it, and the most right-wing lawmakers have raised the prospect of trying to oust McCarthy from his leadership role for what they say were insufficient spending cuts.

On the left, progressive Democrats balked at some of the new work requirements added to the bill, though an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office showed the measure would likely keep the number of Americans on food stamps at roughly the same levels. The bill lifted work requirements for veterans and those experiencing homelessness.

Democratic critics have also voiced outrage at approval included in the bill of a natural gas pipeline through West Virginia and Virginia.

Biden and his aides have argued they were successfully able to stave off the most extreme Republican positions to arrive at a bill that ultimately avoided economic disaster.

Through it all, some Democrats have grumbled at the president’s approach to the situation. While Biden initially said he would not negotiate over raising the debt ceiling, demanding only a “clean increase,” he ultimately entered into talks with McCarthy that tied the borrowing limit to budget cuts.

Others encouraged Biden to use the 14th Amendment, which states the US debt “shall not be questioned,” to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. Biden said it was possible to explore that option in the future, but it was too risky to deploy with the imminent threat of default.

“Nothing would have been more catastrophic” than a default, Biden said in his remarks.

This headline and story have been updated with additional developments.

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