BREAKING: McConnell Proposes Alternative Debt Ceiling Deal

Posted: Jul 12, 2011 3:10 PM

Earlier today, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a strongly-worded speech on the ongoing debt negotiations, and Democrats' failures of leadership.  The first five minutes or so serve as a helpful recap of the timeline of events leading up to this impasse, but his bottom line begins at the 15:15 mark:

Having thrown down this gauntlet, McConnell is introducing an alternative compromise that would, in all likelihood, allow the president to get his debt ceiling increase -- but not without paying a bruising political price.  Here's what the deal entails, as explained by a senior Republican aide familiar with its details.  First some important background:

"Sen. McConnell has been in talks with Obama and Democrats.  We wanted to do something serious and big.  Yesterday, he asked point blank how much the Biden-led deal would actually cut from next year's budget.  The answer he received was $2 Billion, and it's all smoke and mirrors.  In exchange, [Democrats] want $1 Trillion in tax hikes.  It's not the kind of deal we're at all interested in.  We won't accept guaranteed tax hikes in exchange for fantasy future spending cuts. It's not going to happen. We're going to fight like hell to do what we've said we want:  Real spending cuts and caps, a vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment, and real entitlement reform.  So this plan is a fallback option if all else fails.  It's modeled after the Congressional Review Act of the 1990s -- which establishes expedited procedures by which Congress can disapprove executive agencies' rules by way of a resolution of disapproval."

Now that the table is set, here's how the proposed plan would work: Republicans in Congress would agree to vote on legislation authorizing the president to propose three separate incremental debt ceiling increases, spaced over the remainder of his term.  He would be required to couple each request with a corresponding set of spending cuts that exceed the dollar amount of his sought-after debt limit hike.  These cuts would be of his choosing alone.  The first pair of requests would come prior to the August 2 deadline.  It would be for roughly $700 Billion.  The next requests, for $900 Billion, would come in the fall, and the final tranche (also for $900 Billion) would be scheduled for summer of 2012 -- in the thick of the campaign cycle.

In all likelihood, on each occasion, Republicans would overwhelmingly vote to disapprove of the president's debt ceiling increase request.  This allows GOP members (and almost certainly some vulnerable Democrats) to technically vote "no" on raising the debt ceiling.  If, as is likely, simple majorities in both houses vote to disapprove of the president's requests, he'd be forced to veto each disapproval, pinging the issue back to Capitol Hill.  If Congress can't override those vetoes with 2/3 majorities (and Republicans won't have the votes to do so, even with some Democrats), the debt ceiling will increase.  But not without the exacting a substantial political price from the president and his allies in Congress.  They will own the debt ceiling hike.  Period.  Members of Congress who vote with the president will set themselves up for brutal attack ads ("so-and-so has voted to increase the national debt limit three times in the last year alone," etc). 

At first blush, this plan has some attractive elements and some serious drawbacks:

Positives - (1) It forces Democrats, especially the president, to wear this mess.  Not once, but three times. (2) It (supposedly) includes over $2.5 Trillion in spending reductions.  (3) It does not raise taxes.  (4) And it prevents a cataclysmic default.

Negatives - (1) As far as I can tell, there are no enforcement mechanisms to hold the president to his end of the bargain on spending cuts at each step of this process.  If he sets forth woefully inadequate cuts (think Obamacare-style smoke & mirrors, or devastating defense cuts), or if he simply refuses to meet the "required" dollar amounts, I don't see how Republicans can force a correction or scuttle the deal.*  Once the initial legislation authorizing Obama to send these requests is passed, the die is cast.  That is deeply worrisome.  (2) Desperately-needed entitlement reform is off the table, meaning that huge elephant will remain in the room for the forseeable future (although one could argue this will be the case as long as Obama is president anyway).  (3) Finally, on a superficial level, this strikes me as an exercise in too-cute-by-halfery.  Republicans are constructing a scenario which allows them to vote no on something that they tacitly understand will come to fruition anyway.  From a purely political standpoint, it makes some sense, but it's also not especially serious, given the gravity of the problem we face.

McConnell's supporters will likely point out that this is a last-ditch option, and that Congressional Republicans will work hard to pursue more favorable compromises between now and the early August debt deadline.  They'd also argue that as long as Barack Obama is President of the United States, any good-faith, serious, meaningful, systemic spending and entitlement reforms are pipe dreams (McConnell virtually said as much in the speech embedded above).  Therefore, they'd say, this might be the best outcome Republicans can realistically achieve at the moment: Force Obama into proposing trillions in spending cuts, and place the political weight of the debt ceiling hike on his shoulders as November 2012 approaches.

In total, is it a good deal?  My sense is that it isn't horrible -- and that it obviously beats a disastrous default or crippling tax increases -- but that it's nothing to cheer about either.  I'm told the White House and House Republicans were made aware of this idea in advance.  How will they react?

*UPDATE* - A Senate source clarifies that this entire process will not even start without proposed cuts from the president.  I still see this as fuzzy and not entirely convincing.

UPDATE II - WaPo's Jennifer Rubin has more details.

UPDATE III - Heritage Action doesn't much care for the plan.  Red State is blowing its stack over it.