Why McConnell's debt limit proposal is a bad idea 

This afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled a proposal that is a stunning attempt to beam himself out of the debt ceiling fight. Under the proposal, Congress would give President Obama the authority to raise the debt limit without cutting spending by a combined total of  $2.5 trillion, while needing the support of just over one-third of the House and Senate.

The way it would work would be that three times before now and next summer, Obama would make a request to Congress to raise the debt limit, and he'd have to offer a plan to cut spending by a higher amount. Both chambers of Congress would then automatically consider a resolution to disapprove of Obama’s request. If that resolution passes -- i.e. if Congress votes to reject Obama's request -- then Obama could veto it. Because it takes a two-thirds majority in both chambers to override a veto, that means just 34 Senators or 146 House members would be needed to sustain it and thus raise the debt ceiling.

If you sound confused, you aren't alone. But here are a few things to keep in mind about the deal that make it unattractive for conservatives.

First, it won't result in any spending cuts. The key caveat is that under the plan, Obama wouldn't have to actually cut spending -- he would merely have to propose spending cuts. And of course, there are plenty of ways to propose phony savings.

Second, McConnell is pitching this as a "last resort" plan if there's a failure to reach a deal, which would be his preferred option. However, by unveiling this proposal now, it reduces the chances for the type of deal that McConnell says he supports. Obama now knows that McConnell is looking for a way out. As long as Obama feels that he has Republicans on the ropes, he's much less likely to make the sort of concessions the GOP wants.

Third, supporters of the McConnell proposal see it as a way for Republicans to avoid default without directly having to vote on raising the debt ceiling, but that's really a cop out. Make no mistake, any Republican who supports this McConnell proposal is giving Obama the ability to hike the debt ceiling merely by obtaining the support of just over one-third of the House and Senate. Most conservatives are smart enough to see through this gambit. A vote for the McConnell proposal should be viewed as effectively a vote to raise the debt ceiling without spending cuts.

McConnell is known for his mastery of procedure, but this is a cynical attempt to manipulate procedure in a way that tries to escape any sort of responsibility. It's only justification is purely political -- to allow Republicans avert being blamed for default without having to directly vote on the debt ceiling, while putting all the burden on Democrats -- but there's no policy justification for such a move, and it certainly takes us no closer to tackling the debt.

For those of you who are interested in more of the deal's logistics, the following was passed along to me by a Senate GOP aide:

The debt disapproval plan that would force the President to request increases in the debt ceiling—commensurate with proposed spending cuts of at least $2.5 trillion over the next year. It would provide for up to three separate sets of votes on a resolution disapproving of the increase– one later this month, the second in the fall of 2011 and the third in the summer of 2012.  The plan is modeled on the 1996 Congressional Review Act, which established expedited procedures by which Congress may disapprove agencies' rules by enacting a joint resolution of disapproval.

  • The initial legislation would authorize the President to submit a request to Congress asking to increase the debt limit by $700 billion, and would require submission of a plan to reduce spending by a greater amount.
  • Upon receipt of the President’s request, the debt limit would be provisionally increased by $100 billion to provide breathing room and avert an August 2nd default.
  • The House and Senate would have 15 days to disapprove of the request.
  • Within three days of the President’s request, it would be in order for the House and Senate to introduce a joint resolution disapproving of the President’s request.
  • Under expedited consideration of the Resolution of Disapproval, the resolution would be placed directly on the Senate calendar; the Motion to Proceed to the resolution would be privileged; there would be 10 hours of debate and passage would require a simple majority.
  • If either chamber defeats the resolution of disapproval, the increase would be allowed.
  • If both chambers pass the resolution, it would be sent to the President for a veto or signature.
  • If vetoed, debate to sustain his veto or override would be limited to one hour.
  • If the veto is overridden (which would require a 2/3 vote) in both chambers, then the request would be denied and the provisional $100 billion increase revoked.
  • If the veto is sustained in either chamber, the remaining $600 billion increase would be allowed.

For the second and third requests in fall 2011 and summer 2012, the President could request an increase of the debt limit by $900 billion once the Treasury Department determines that the country is within $100 billion of the debt limit. The President would also be required to submit a plan to reduce spending by a greater amount.  Each of these subsequent requests would be subject to the same disapproval process outlined above.

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Philip Klein

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