The Spectacle Blog

The McConnell Back-Up Option

By on 7.12.11 | 6:26PM

Today Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a back-up plan to avoid defaulting on the debt if the debt ceiling negotiations fail. Fred Barnes at The Weekly Standard has provided a good summary of the measure, which is complicated: 

To counter Obama, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell unveiled legislation requiring the president to submit a series of three requests - now, in the fall, and next summer - to increase the debt ceiling.

Each request would have to include spending cuts in excess of the amount of the increase in the limit on borrowing. If Congress rejected the cuts as insufficient by passing a "resolution of disapproval," the president could send a new package of cuts or veto the resolution. Should his veto be sustained - at least 34 senators would be needed - the debt limit would rise with no cuts attached.

The first request would be for $700 billion, and then the second two would be $900 billion, with the last coming just months before the 2012 elections. The idea is that the blame for raising the debt ceiling would fall on Obama, and no tax cuts would be included. Furthermore, Obama would have to put his plan for reducing spending in writing -- something that would be politically costly for him. 

Barnes likes the idea; Philip Klein thinks it is "a cynical attempt to manipulate procedure in a way that tries to escape any sort of responsibility." Rich Lowry believes the ultimate effect of the bill would be to allow a "cleanish increase" of the debt ceiling by $2 trillion -- exactly what Obama wants. Jim argues that the only difference between total Republican capitulation and the McConnell plan is "gimmickry."

Perhaps McConnell truly believes that there might be no other way to avoid default than this bill. As bargaining strategy, though, it is flawed for two reasons.

The first is that it breaks up the Republicans' united front on negotiating demands -- that the vote to increase the debt limit include significant spending cuts and no tax hikes. McConnell's introduction of this bill signals that Republicans aren't willing to maintain that posture for long. The fact that it's just a back-up plan makes no difference; if it's advantageous Obama will simply aim for the back-up scenario. This strengthens Obama's hand and makes it more likely that the final package will look more like his ideal. 

The second is that it's possible that McConnell may have underestimated Obama's willingness to cut spending. By appearing totally intransigent in their demands, Republicans gave Obama cover to pursue deficit reduction measures that would otherwise outrage his liberal base (even more than the prospect of those measures does now). Although they have consistently placed politics before fiscal security at every point, Obama's economic team is aware of the need to reduce deficits, and has increasingly signalled its willingness to take some of the first steps in that direction. But, politically, Obama can only afford meaningful spending reforms if he's able to tell his supporters that the GOP left him with no choice. McConnell has given him another choice, undermining that possiblity. 

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