Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell today unveiled what he called "a sort of last-choice option" in the debt debate that would allow President Obama to raise the amount of money Congress can legally borrow unless two-thirds of Congress opposed it.
The deal, which faces an uphill battle in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, would essentially cede authority to the president after months of negotiations between the White House and the Congress, in which Republicans have argued for a significant deficit and debt reduction deal in exchange for voting the raise the debt ceiling.
McConnell's plan still calls for the president to make proposed spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, but it puts the onus on those in Congress who are more adamantly opposed to raising the debt ceiling.
In exchange for the authority given to the president, the plan would allow Republicans and others opposed to raising the debt ceiling three chances to vote against an increase in the future, without actually blocking those increases because Obama could override them. In other words, if McConnell's plan were adopted, the debt ceiling could be raised over the objections of conservatives, but those conservatives would get at least three public votes on the matter. And Mr. Obama would also be required to spell out what he would cut in exchange for the debt ceiling increase, even though those cuts would not necessarily be enacted.
"This is not my first choice," McConnell said at a press conference today. "My first choice is to get an agreement with the president to significantly reduce spending."
However, he explained that the consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling are too great.
"If we're unable to come together, we think it's extremely important the country reassure the markets that default is not an option," McConnell said.
On top of that, the GOP leader added, Congress must reassure Social Security recipients that their checks would come in the mail. Earlier today, Mr. Obama told CBS Evening News Anchor Scott Pelley that it's possible Social Security recipients may not receive their checks on time if the debt ceiling isn't raised.
(The debt ceiling is the amount of money the U.S government is technically allowed to borrow. If the limit isn't raised, the U.S. would either default on its loans or drastically cut off spending in areas like Social Security. Check out our debt ceiling primer here.)
With the president threatening that Social Security checks may not be mailed if the debt ceiling isn't raised by Aug. 2, Republicans increasingly face the risk of being pinned with the blame for any such consequences.
Before McConnell's "back-up" plan could be implemented, Senate Democrats would have to agree to go along with it, since they control the Senate. It's unclear if they would, but with this plan, Republicans can at least say they offered a way of avoiding the "economic catastrophe" the administration says could follow if the ceiling isn't raised.
And House Republicans are not enthusiastic about the plan either. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said his boss share's McConnell's frustration.
"Republicans are unified in our commitment to ensuring that the debt limit is not used as leverage to saddle small businesses with increased taxes that destroy jobs," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. Steel made no direct comment on McConnell's proposal.
McConnell's "back up" plan is rather complicated, but here's how it would work:
If the plan were approved by Congress, and that is a big if, there would then be three sets of votes to bring the debt ceiling to a level that would last through Mr. Obama's presidency -- in other words, at least until 2013.
First, Mr. Obama would submit a request for Congress to raise the ceiling by $700 billion. He'd turn in the request along with a plan to cut more than $700 billion in spending.
Upon receiving that plan, Congress would provisionally raise the limit by $100 billion, just to give the Treasury some extra time to avoid defaulting.
The House and Senate would then have a limited amount of time to disapprove of, rather than approve, the request. That puts responsibility for the matter on those most staunchly opposed to raising the limit, regardless of the consequences. The resolution of disapproval would only take a simple majority to pass.
If both the House and the Senate passed the resolution, Mr. Obama would have to sign or veto it. If he vetoed it, it would take a two-thirds vote in both chambers to override the veto -- something that would be nearly impossible.
After the first $700 billion was approved (or rather, not disapproved of), Mr. Obama would have to send in two more requests: a second request for $900 billion in the fall and a third $900 billion request in the summer of 2012.
McConnell would not only have to convince the Democratic majority in the Senate to go along with the plan, but also the GOP majority in the House. House Speaker John Boehner's spokesperson Michael Steel gave a vague response to the plan, with no indication Boehner would support it.
"The Speaker shares the Leader's frustration," he said. "Republicans are unified in our commitment to ensuring that the debt limit is not used as leverage to saddle small businesses with increased taxes that destroy jobs."