And for His Next Trick

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has concocted an elaborate scheme that would allow President Barack Obama a clean shot at raising the debt limit, in three installments, over the next year and a half. Unlike his fellow Republicans, McConnell will not use the debt-ceiling fight to force cuts in discretionary spending or safety-net programs. Instead, he focuses on his chief preoccupation: winning elections for the GOP.

McConnell's proposal would create a byzantine system for raising the debt ceiling: The House and Senate would first pass a bill that authorizes the president to submit a request to increase the debt limit, first by $700 billion, then in additional installments of $900 billion a piece. In each case, the president would have to concurrently submit a separate plan to reduce spending by an equal or greater amount. That's the last we see of those spending plans; they are purely hypothetical, and they play no role in the rest of the legislative machinations. Congress wouldn't have to vote on them. So, in this proposal, Republicans give up their ability to use the debt limit to force fiscal policy changes.

Once the president requests the first debt-limit increase, the House and Senate can use what is known as a resolution of disapproval to try to block it. If the resolution passes both houses of Congress, it moves to the president. But Obama can choose to veto the resolution of disapproval, and overriding that veto would require a two-thirds vote in each chamber. This means that a minority of 34 senators or 146 House members can sustain Obama's veto, which would result in the $700 billion increase in the debt limit going through. The same process carries for the additional installments.

Like the shady Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, this proposal is "limited to the present circumstances." After the final release of the third installment, the debt limit reverts back to a statute in the exclusive hands of Congress, rather than this unique legislative maneuver.

So what exactly is the purpose? One, McConnell clearly doesn't want to take the nation's creditworthiness hostage, which could lead to the first default n the history of the United States. Talks at the White House have bogged down, and it's hard to find a formula for a deal that would satisfy any demands. Republicans won't vote for a tax increase, and Democrats won't vote for a deal without one. Faced with this impasse, McConnell blinked. And it's perfectly logical that he would do so. It's important to understand that McConnell isn't really all that concerned with the debt limit; most of the fire breathing on this issue has come from the House side. McConnell has never threatened to filibuster a clean debt-limit bill. He may believe he has other options to force spending constraints, such as the looming 2012 budget fight.

So this Rube Goldberg mechanism instead serves McConnell's other goals. He doesn't want him or any of his GOP colleagues to have to vote to increase the debt limit. His primary concern is that Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill and Ben Nelson and Joe Manchin -- moderate Democrats who could fall to Republicans next year -- have to take that vote, and that Obama has the full responsibility for engineering it. In other words, he wants what every Senate minority leader has wanted since time immemorial: to put all the responsibility for approving a controversial and unpopular measure on the majority party. Under this plan, Republicans could vote against the increase without worrying about causing a default and accuse Democrats of racking up debt. And since the president would have to submit a specific request for the increase, it fits with McConnell's other goal of driving down Obama's popularity and making him a one-term president. What's more, the spending cut term paper that Obama would have to write may prove useful in the upcoming 2012 budget talks.

This isn't a perfect plan in that regard, or even a good one. First, only 34 senators - or actually, zero, if House Democrats take the burden of sustaining the President's veto - have to vote for something that authorizes the debt limit. Under no circumstances would Tester or McCaskill or Nelson or Manchin ever have to come near this vote. What's more, under the right circumstances, Obama could let Congress go into recess while the resolution of disapproval is at his desk and not sign it, a maneuver known as a pocket veto. A pocket veto cannot be overridden. And finally, the list of presidents, or any member of Congress, who lost an election over a vote to raise the debt limit is nonexistent. Forcing this vote on Democrats has less political potency than McConnell believes.

Washington is always a strange place, but this gambit from McConnell represents a complete inversion of the debate in the space of a few days. Once the hostage-takers, now the Republicans are the ones looking for an escape hatch. McConnell reportedly feels at the mercy of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Given that the fast-moving negotiations will generate a deal with so many discrete elements, the OMB would have a lot of control over the final numbers. McConnell said yesterday there were only three options available to the GOP -- "smoke and mirrors, tax hikes, or default." He obviously feels that any deal written in the White House will be tilted against his party.

But if Republicans believe themselves to be without leverage, the Democratic president in the White House is in the opposite role. He's now the one using the debt limit to force a deal, one bigger than even his own party favors, with major cuts to cherished programs like Medicare and Social Security. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in response to McConnell's plan that President Obama still wanted to "seize this unique opportunity to come to agreement on significant, balanced deficit reduction."

Given the righteous conservative anger at McConnell's and Obama's preoccupation with a bipartisan deal, this doesn't mean we can close the book on this debt-limit increase just yet. But even if McConnell's plan passes, the legacy of what Obama put on the table for cuts in these talks will haunt Democrats for many years, and we'll see those proposals again -- with lines like "Even Barack Obama supported" attached to them. It was a damaging strategy. But for the first time in a while, you heard the words "Republicans" and "spineless capitulation" in the same sentence.

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