Political Animal


July 12, 2011 3:55 PM McConnell’s ‘contingency plan’

By Steve Benen

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was on “Fox News Sunday” over the weekend, and guest host Bret Baier asked what happens if debt-reduction talks fail. McConnell largely dodged the question, saying he’d have “more to say about that” later.

Baier followed up, asking “Is there a contingency plan?” McConnell replied, “There’s always a contingency plan.” Asked what such a plan might look like, the senator added, “I’ll let you know.”

Well, apparently he’s letting us know.

Desperate to get out of the political box they helped to create, Senate Republicans are actively pursuing a new plan under which the debt ceiling would grow in three increments over the remainder of this Congress unless lawmakers approve a veto-proof resolution of disapproval.

In effect lawmakers would be surrendering the very power of approval that the GOP has used to force the debt crisis now. But by taking the disapproval route, Republicans can shift the onus more onto the White House and Democrats since a two-thirds majority will be needed to stop any increase that President Barack Obama requests.

How this will sit with House Republicans is unclear. But it offers an escape valve for those in the Senate GOP who fear that if the current crisis persists they will be forced to accept some tax revenue increases as part of any settlement.

So, what does this mean, exactly? It struck me as a bad sign that I asked a few folks on the Hill to help walk me through this, and their explanations were far from identical.

As best as I can tell, McConnell’s proposed scenario, which would avoid default, is an elaborate scheme to pass the buck. President Obama could raise the debt ceiling, effectively on his own, with McConnell setting up a series of votes going into the 2012 election intended to put Democratic lawmakers on the spot. (McConnell’s top goal, other than defeating the president, is becoming Majority Leader in the next Congress. If he can make vulnerable Dems cast awkward votes, McConnell will do this as often as humanly possible.)

Brian Beutler unwraps the proposed solution.

The plan would require Congress to pass a bill allowing Obama to raise the debt limit on his own contingent on him taking a series of steps: Obama would have to notify Congress of his intent to raise the debt limit — a high-sign to Congress that would be subject to an official censure known as a “resolution of disapproval,” and which Obama could veto. If he vetoed the resolution, and if Congress sustained the veto, then Obama would also have to outline a series of hypothetical spending cuts he’d make, equal to the amount of new debt authority he gives himself.

McConnell proposes extending this process in three tranches, to force Obama to request more borrowing authority, and to force debt limit votes in Congress, repeatedly through election season. […]

The legislation would not give Obama unilateral authority to cut spending or reduce deficits. And as such, it represents a big policy cave by Republicans, who’ve long insisted that they will not raise the debt limit without enacting entitlement cuts, long-sought by the conservative movement, on a bipartisan basis. But, if Dems buy into this option, it will keep the potent debt issue alive, and central to politics, for much of this election season.

Garance Franke-Ruta described this as “one of the clearest statements of legislative cowardice I’ve ever seen.”

The right, meanwhile, doesn’t seem fond of the idea — Erick Erickson is equated McConnell with “Pontius Pilate” and said it’s time to “burn” the Senate Minority Leader “in effigy.”

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • MBunge on July 12, 2011 4:08 PM:

    And what would stop Obama from simply raising the debt limit and then refusing to submit any "hypothetical" spending cuts? I mean, at that point, Congress would already have sustained his veto...right? Or what would require Obama to submit a list of spending cuts that would have any realistic chance of passing? I'd imagine his White House could cook up some numbers that were heavily titled toward goring upopular GOP cows.


  • JS on July 12, 2011 4:14 PM:

    And yet, this is the closest to 'reasonable' as we've seen from the Republican leadership in this whole pie fight.

  • jjm on July 12, 2011 4:16 PM:

    Truly legislative cowardice.

    McConnell & Co. are increasingly revealing the absolute bankruptcy of their thinking. The ONLY thing they can focus on is how to try to make Obama look bad, which of course is precisely what makes them look so very bad.

    I repeat a nice turn of phrase I found on this blog earlier today: for those who have decided to pledge allegiance to Grover Norquist (and thereby violate their oaths of office) we have this name: NORQUISLINGS.

  • kevo on July 12, 2011 4:17 PM:

    McConnell leads from the bunker! He is a coward, and a political hack who is only in the game to protect entrenched power and to eviscerate this sitting president.

    Mitch McConnell is the poster boy of how things have gone so wrong here in my beloved country! Mitch McConnell is an indecent human being, and his after-life will be comsumed daily by the jowls of Satan himself!

    Oh, and by the way Mitch, don't come near me, because if you do, I will no doubt unclog my left nostril in your general direction! -Kevo

  • Danp on July 12, 2011 4:19 PM:

    Never thought I would agree with Erick Erickson.

    The funny part of this is that now Republicans would be able to pass spending bills, requiring the executive branch to pay for unneeded military equipment, gay conversion therapy, etc. and blame Obama whether he spends the money or not.

    Let's see how dumb America really is.

  • June on July 12, 2011 4:23 PM:

    Ridiculous. "The Chin" can take this ball and go home now.

  • c u n d gulag on July 12, 2011 4:23 PM:


    Obama, for ALL of his faults, and all of his plusses, had ONE thing right - put off the next, what used to be AUTOMATIC, debt ceiling "negotiation" until 2013.

    F*ck you, Mitch "Yertle the Anti-gay Gay Turtle,' and Boner!

    You guys painted yourselves into this corner by listening to a group that even Goldwater and Buckley knew were toxic.

    I am mortally tired of these childish, RETARDED assholes, and I hope Obama calls them on it rather than give away the store.

  • troglodyte on July 12, 2011 4:29 PM:

    Really, this surprises me. Did the Repubs really have no better contingency than this? Was it because they said no to a huge spending cut package just because Obama offered it to them, and thereby had ownership of it?

    Maybe the phone calls from Wall Street have started to come in. Considering that a hedge fund manager was sharing a $350 bottle of wine with Congressman Paul Ryan last week in a DC restaurant, it seems that the money guys are starting to take the crisis seriously.

    A government funding crisis would put a crimp in those August Hampton plans, you know.

  • bigtuna on July 12, 2011 4:30 PM:

    as posted below. THis is utter bullshit. The president;s office and Harry Reid should dismiss this out of hand. And then, re-emphasis what has been offered, and continue to act like grownups, and watch these pathetic assholes while and cry like babies.

  • T2 on July 12, 2011 4:31 PM:

    two thoughts:

    "McConnell setting up a series of votes" - Harry Reid is Majority leader and sets the Senate votes. Not McConnell.

    If Erickson is against it, the TeaParty is against it, which means Old Turtlehead will be backtracking by tomorrow. Really, this sounds like a pretty desperate idea, one hatched over a $300 bottle of wine.

  • Alex on July 12, 2011 4:31 PM:

    If Obama can get a good deal from them in the next week, fine, take it. On the other hand, why isn't this a win for Obama. He gets free rein for the debt ceiling until after the election (and he's going to get blamed for whatever increase in debt between now and then anyway). This allows him to decide before the deadlines what kind of spending cuts to propose. If he thinks he has to look centrist, he goes with what he's been proposing now (with some high income tax cuts -- let the republicans attack that). If he wants to go for his base, he can weight more towards tax cuts. Either way, no way a veto gets overridden in both houses. And, the Republicans who let this plan go through will have allowed the debt ceiling to be raised with NO guaranteed spending cuts. How is that not political suicide for them? They will be primaried out by even more radical republicans, and then the Dems hammer the Republicans as crazy ("remember the debt ceiling debacle last year?"), and "hey, by the way, the guys running this year (in 2012) are even crazier."

  • zeitgeist on July 12, 2011 4:39 PM:

    McConnell may be a snivelling coward, but he is much, much smarter than his junior colleagues in the House (who he just threw under the bus).

    McConnell had a contingency plan alright: to protect Senate Republicans when the world blows up.

    This is actually pretty brilliant. If Obama bad mouths a plan that gives Obama the power, McConnell calls him a coward. At the same time, McConnell never has to worry that he actually gives Obama additional power because Erik the Red State and his ilk will ensure the House would never pass this bill.

    In the meantime, however, the Senate Republicans look like they tried to be constructive - they offered a plan! it even empowered Obama! it didn't touch entitlements!

    This makes House Republicans look even less constructive; it denies Obama a clean win; it allows the Senate Republicans to share the "adults in the room" label in the eyes of the press; it puts the Senate Dems in a really tough spot -- and best of all for McConnell, it has zero chance of ever becoming law.

    He sounds clownish, and he is as evil as they get, but he ain't stupid.

    Captcha: "pronti integrals" - I'm pretty sure I failed that unit in undergrad engineering calculus.

  • Alex on July 12, 2011 4:42 PM:


    Well said -- I should have said in my post that I don't see how this gets through the House (because it's suicide). And, I agree that this will make the House Republicans look worse. I think Obama should take the deal though and tell Congress to pass it (which is tough).

  • Ted Frier on July 12, 2011 4:45 PM:

    Sounds as if Republicans have just created an elaborate mechanism for giving the President the very power that many think he already has under the 14th amendment.

    And in this sense McConnell is staging a strategic retreat in which he tries to help Republicans save as much face as possible while tacitly admitting it was always a stupid idea to hold the debt ceiling hostage in order to wring concessions from Democrats because all along Republicans were essentially holding a gun to their own heads.

  • Neil B on July 12, 2011 4:46 PM:

    Well, maybe Team Obama are better chess players than we thought. In any case, at this great DeLong thread we find out a lot about what set the stage for things going wrong.

  • T2 on July 12, 2011 4:48 PM:

    Seems to me, after McTurtle's comments, Obama should just thank him very much for the offer to allow Obama to raise the limit on his own, invoke the amendment to the Constitution that seems to grant that anyway, raise the limit, and all go home.

  • st john on July 12, 2011 4:49 PM:

    As we have seen over and over, there is no reason to trust the Republicans to keep any agreement, whether it is written or only spoken. I don't claim to understand the machinations of governmental process, but my opinion is that it is designed to be so complex as to prevent an average voter from understanding what is happening and casting an informed vote. The American people are poorly served by the main stream media. They are also poorly served by their representatives, whose primary purpose seems to be to stay in power and serve those who are most able and willing to fund their never-ending campaigns. Those who fail to play the game fail to stay in the game.

    The good news is that we are no longer limited to gathering our information from the MSM and the politicians' public comments. As more and more of us take responsibility for informing our immediate communities of what is really going on through the internet, the lies and fabrications of the power-brokers are exposed quickly and counter-responses are mounted to expose the hypocrisy they attempt to feed us. Watching News Corp and Rupert Murdoch franticly dance to avoid a total meltdown of his empire is a welcome example of the power of truth and outrage in the face of corruption and false witnessing.

    We are the ones we've been waiting for. Let no one deny your power in speaking truth.

    I am committed to Oneness through Justice and Transformation

    st john

  • troglodyte on July 12, 2011 4:51 PM:

    In reply to Zeitgeist:

    It is a good chess strategy to put yourself into your adversary's shoes and suggest how his tactics might benefit him. However, the upsides of the strategy you outline are tenuous. First off, they depend on Obama taking the bait and calling the plan bogus -- he has kept a straight face in the face of many crazier ideas. Second, it depends on the media adopting the meme that McDonnell's stratagem is adult -- and the instant derision, coupled with the transcendent cynicism of the move seems too obvious even for the ghost of David Broder. Third, you suggest that McDonnell benefits in an internecine sense against the House leadership of his own party. If the Repubs are starting to paint faces of their own kind on their bomber fuselages, the end of their dominance is near.

    Its hard to see this as a smart chess move. Rather, a desperate one. Dont the Repubs have money for a decent consultant?

  • Matt on July 12, 2011 4:53 PM:

    The right, meanwhile, doesn’t seem fond of the idea

    Well, shit, why would they? Never mind what they think about the deficit, it's breaking their most fundamental commandment: Thou Shalt Not Govern.

    And that includes standing idly by while someone else governs!

  • ElegantFowl on July 12, 2011 4:59 PM:

    Looks pretty good to me. I *like* the part requiring Obama to propose a package of spending cuts (and tax increases), which the Republicans will presumably decline. That forces Obama out on record with proposals audacious enough to vote against, instead of conspiring in the back room.

    Meanwhile, continued deadlock moves closer to the deficit solving itself (expiring tax cuts, ending wars, ACA and IPAB kicking in) and the economy continuing to stagnate (as opposed to being flushed into depression).

  • joan on July 12, 2011 5:03 PM:

    An earlier comment from c u n d gulag
    about ODonnell and his theory of last night seems to be what is actually happening, the President seems to be playing his cards well.

  • hells littlest angel on July 12, 2011 5:04 PM:

    I don't see how this contingency plan makes the Republicans look like anything but cowards and fools, not just to moderates and independents, but to their own slavering base. Do it, Mitch.

  • Archon on July 12, 2011 5:11 PM:

    This has been MASTERFULLY played by Obama and his strategists. Republicans had no idea that the President would be open to making a deal to the right of Republicans, in terms of spending. He basically called the GOP's bluff on spending and they folded. Not only that Obama exposed the GOP as a political party more interested in protecting tax cuts for rich folks than reducing spending.

    The Obama guy is playing one cold game of hardball politics.

  • zeitgeist on July 12, 2011 5:26 PM:

    troglodyte, i hope you are correct about how McConnell's plan plays in the MSM. You're more optimistic than I am, but if this is what it takes for them to finally quite equivocating on who is being an adult or not, I'm all for it.

    but don't underestimate the internecine stuff -- heck, it is happening among even closer relatives between Boehner and Cantor. McConnell may figure he has a better chance of taking the Senate in 2012 than Boehner has of holding the House, so his self-interest is in providing his own caucus a little fig leaf. The House can take care of itself (or not. he likely doesn't much care.)

  • Danny on July 12, 2011 5:31 PM:

    Don't look now boys but the outcome of our stupid, weak negotiator-in-chiefs negotiating is some leading republicans now trying to bail to a "contingency plan" which is pretty much the "clean" raising of the debt ceiling with some added political kabuki that the president asked for in the first place and which they said would never happen.

    But there are some things that have changed since Obama first asked for that "clean" bill some months ago: the credibility on deficit reduction now rests squarely with the president. The media has discussed what drives the deficit and made clear that a substancial part of it is the Bush tax cuts, rather than TARP the Stimulus and PPACA. The republicans are on the record being willing to do almost anything to preserve tax cuts for billionaires. Looking pretty good so far.

  • Marko on July 12, 2011 5:33 PM:

    Why should Obama have to play all that Kabuki Theater to raise the debt limit? If the Republicans want the POTUS to do the dirty work, then let him do it under his own terms.

  • Archon on July 12, 2011 5:43 PM:

    Exactly Danny, we are right back to square one but this time the GOP made Obama look like the one willing to make the big bipartisan deal even if it inflamed his base and the GOP looks like a party more interested in protecting millionaires then cutting spending. In fact the GOP's only play now is to try to convince people Obama wasn't acting in good faith when it came to cutting spending. Good luck with that.

    I never understood why Obama didn't demand a clean debt vote but wow, this couldn't have turned out any better for the President politically.

  • Texas Aggie on July 12, 2011 6:34 PM:

    Several questions: for Erickson, why in effigy?

    For others, why should Obama follow their rules if they decide to let the debt ceiling rise? Do it in one fell swoop and for cuts, cut the subsidies to the oil companies, the various loopholes for the rich like counting yachts as homes and favorable tax treatment for their private jets, plus any of a number of other breaks that their lobbyists have bought for them. And what's to stop him from deciding to raise taxes on the filthy rich and especially, the hedge fund people?

  • Danny on July 12, 2011 6:54 PM:


    I never understood why Obama didn't demand a clean debt vote but wow, this couldn't have turned out any better for the President politically.

    Because he wants to do long term deficit reduction (as he should). And he already had a batch of "spending cuts" to offer. Presumably cutting defense spending, negotiating lower reimbursement rates for medicare providers, other stuff that progressives always want to do but usually have trouble getting through congress.

    Why not use the republicans manufactured debt crisis - now that they went to all the trouble establishing it with the public? After all the republicans only managed to establish that the problem was "spending" and "the deficit" and the remedy was "cuts". So lets offer a lot of "cuts" that we actually like ourselves. Are the republicans gonna turn around and refuse those "cuts" after screaming for "cuts" over and over?

    In addition, lets propose some "revenue" that is popular with the public, but hated by republicans.

    Worst case outcome: Republicans bluff is called and they lose face. Best case: we force republicans to sign on to a lot of stuff we like and they dont.

    Put another way: if you face a foe who is pathologically dishonest - propose a deal that you like and he should accept if he had been on the level. Make him chose between either accommodating your own wishes in order to uphold the fiction he tried to peddle, or else expose himself to the world as the dishonest scum he is. That's much neater than having to publicly assume bad faith or be the apparent agressor in a public stalemate.

    Nicely played.

  • Doug on July 12, 2011 9:47 PM:

    "As best as I can tell, McConnell's proposed scenario, which would avoid default is an elaborate scheme to pass the buck," Steve Benen.

    No "best as I can tell" about it, Mr. Benen hit the nail on the head! Republicans have. literally, been made offers that no sane politician would refuse; yet they turned them down. Offers that seriously risked pitting Mr. Obama and his supporters against each other; yet those offers were ALSO turned down.
    Now, realizing that SOMETHING has to be done, the cowardly Republican Minority Leader, may his caucus decrease mightily, can only come up with this completely transparent attempt to have his cake and eat it too!
    This isn't chess; it's poker, President Obama has called the Republicans' bluff and, if THIS represents the GOP's "Plan B", they have no idea what to do now. The Teabaggers won't let the rest of the Republicans fold, but if the "sensible" Republicans DON'T fold, the economy crashes. Boehner, et al also have to consider that by passing a "clean" bill, they risk splitting the Republican House caucus and giving the balance of power in the House to Nancy Pelosi.
    If the danger to the economy weren't so great, I'd really, really, really enjoy this...

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