Associated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak

Time bomb

Politics | With the clock ticking toward government default, both sides appear ready to risk hardship

Issue: "Orphaned no more," July 30, 2011

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader from Kentucky, has a reputation on Capitol Hill for being a tough face-to-face negotiator. But, as time ticks down toward a possible August default on federal spending obligations, even McConnell seems befuddled by the never-ending haggling over raising the government's $14.29 trillion borrowing limit.

During negotiations last week, McConnell asked a White House official the total of next year's spending cuts under the Democrats' proposal. The answer, McConnell said, was about $2 billion-representing just about half of what Washington borrows, in one day.

"It was at that point I realized that the White House simply was not serious about cutting spending or debt," he said. "In the end, the White House gave us three choices . . . a massive tax hike, smoke and mirrors, or default."

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So McConnell on July 12 offered a fourth solution, something he called a "last resort." He proposed giving President Barack Obama the power to raise the debt ceiling in a way that would absolve lawmakers of responsibility. Obama could ask for a debt ceiling increase three times within the next year. Congress, under the plan, could vote on a "resolution of disapproval" of any Obama-proposed debt ceiling increase. Then Obama could veto the rejection. The president's move to increase the debt ceiling would likely survive a two-thirds congressional majority required to override a veto.

Presto, the U.S. Treasury has a higher debt ceiling and Republicans can go on the campaign trail claiming they voted against the increase. Obama wouldn't even have to offer spending cuts.

But McConnell's gambit to cede authority to the president and maneuver Republicans out of co-ownership of a bad economy quickly turned into another debt ceiling debacle. Eric Erickson from the conservative blog RedState scrawled out a furious response, calling the plan "The Pontius Pilate Pass the Buck Act of 2011." He urged his readers to mail toy weasels to McConnell's office.

The Heritage Foundation's Rory Cooper wrote, "We understand that the plan, by design, puts the onus on liberals in Washington to finally propose some way to address out-of-control spending. . . . Unfortunately political maneuvering in a time of such high stakes is not sufficient." FreedomWorks, the political organization that funded many Tea Party candidates, announced they are "encouraging our million-plus members to help Sen. McConnell find his spine." In other words, giving the president more power does not top the to-do lists of most conservatives.

With the Treasury Department warning that the government could fail to meet its financial obligations if the debt ceiling isn't increased by Aug. 2-and Moody's Investors reviewing the rising risk for a possible downgrade of the U.S. triple-A government bond rating-leading lawmakers are feeling pressure to reach a deal with the White House. House Republicans remain the most important constituency needed to back the plan, but Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., conceded, "Nothing can get through the House right now."

That is because most of the 84 new House Republicans made their way to Washington on promises to reduce the deficit. Frustrated by smaller-than-expected spending cuts in this spring's federal budget showdown, the freshmen see the debt ceiling as their last stand. They are new enough to Washington to hope for, even demand, policy victories over political ones. They want to tie any debt limit increase to three things: enforceable caps and controls on spending, cuts that match increases in the federal government's borrowing power, and no tax hikes. If the president and congressional leaders somehow reach an agreement, a sizable hurdle remains: convincing the rank-and-file members of both parties to go along.

Obama has insisted that Congress needs to "pull off the Band-Aid. Eat our peas." But conservatives balk at the president's idea of the right vegetable: a trillion-dollar tax increase that's included in the Democrats' debt limit deal. Conservatives want $2.5 trillion in deficit-reduction over 10 years in exchange for a $2.5 trillion hike in the debt ceiling. With an economy that generated only 18,000 new jobs last month (where over 100,000 approaches the norm), Republican lawmakers believe they are right to oppose additional burdens on taxpayers.

In the impasse the White House predicted calamity if the government's borrowing power is not increased. Obama said he could not guarantee that Social Security checks would go out next month. That, plus a stormy walkout by the president after a July 13 session with lawmakers, has conservatives wondering if Obama's team really wants to strike a deal before the deadline: Running out the clock may give Democrats a chance to blame Republicans for what comes next.


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