Senator Mitch McConnell’s original suggestion for solving the nation’s debt ceiling dilemma outraged many of his fellow conservatives and would, if enacted in its initial form, have probably produced deep disgust in the public at large.
After the angry immediate response from the GOP base, the Senate minority leader began re-tooling the scheme to make it far more viable and substantive, with the important addition of at least $1.4 trillion in budget cuts (over the next ten years) and a potentially promising mechanism for getting clear-cut, up-or-down votes for even more significant savings in the future. Most small government advocates remain skeptical, but even doubters can acknowledge that McConnell’s proposal does perform an important public service by exposing the growing Republican consensus that President Obama feels no real desire to make a deal and prefers a dramatic, dangerous confrontation that could well work to his political advantage.
What makes the McConnell plan unacceptable to the Republican base is the appearance of capitulation to Barack Obama. The Minority Leader of the U.S. Senate offers the president unilateral authority to raise the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion dollars with commitments to budget cuts that currently amount to far less. After months of angry debate and sweeping victories in last November’s elections, the GOP leadership needs to reward its loyal supporters with plausible claims of victory in the ongoing battle of the budget. As Senator Lindsey Graham declares with surprising vehemence, the McConnell option looks like a political solution, not an economic solution. Rather than moving toward a substantive solution of the budget mess, it allows that mess to continue and fester as long as the GOP can blame the president for the sad state of affairs.
In this sense, McConnell’s proposal (even with some of its recent tweaks) seems to place showmanship over substance, politics over policy. If Republicans voted for it, they would seem to announce: “We’ll give Obama the debt increases he wants, and we don’t care how it busts the budget; our main concern is that we’re able to pin the blame squarely on the president and go on record as voting against it.” The two-thirds requirement for denying a debt increase in the McConnell plan means that every House Republican and all 47 GOP Senators (plus some endangered Democrats) could cast a vote against an unpopular hike in the debt ceiling, without stopping the process or creating risks of default. The proposed ploy may be motivated by a sincere concern for the health of the economy, but it looks cynical and tricky, and amounts to an obvious violation of Republican promises to stand unshakably on principle.