Political Animal


July 13, 2011 8:00 AM With 20 days to go, a ‘last-chance option’

By Steve Benen

President Obama, Vice President Biden, and the top eight congressional leaders continue to meet literally every day in the hopes of striking a debt-reduction deal, and yesterday’s talks lasted two hours. How much headway was made yesterday? By all accounts, none.

We’re now 20 days from August 2, the point at which the United States will exhaust its ability to pay its bills, and the fundamental dynamic has not, cannot, and probably will not change: Democrats are seeking a compromise with spending cuts and new revenue; Republicans won’t compromise and expect Dems to meet 100% of the GOP’s demands. Or else.

Enter Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) new proposal, which he called a “last-choice option.” The byzantine process would work like this:

…First, Obama would submit a request for a $700 billion increase in the debt ceiling, along with a nonbinding proposal to cut spending. That would automatically trigger a $100 billion increase in the debt ceiling to give Congress time to consider the request. Congress could then vote to either approve or disapprove of the president’s request. If they disapprove of it, however, Obama could veto their disapproval, and unless two-thirds of both chambers voted to overturn his veto — a virtually unthinkable outcome given that Democrats control the Senate — he could raise the debt ceiling anyway.

The same thing would happen, albeit in $900 billion increments rather than $700 billion increments, in fall 2011 and summer 2012. Take it all together, and Republicans would almost completely forfeit their leverage over the debt ceiling. In return, they’d get to make Democrats vote repeatedly to first raise the debt ceiling and then to “approve” of raising the debt ceiling. As Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said, this “gives the president 100 percent of the responsibility.” Or, to put it differently, 100 percent of the blame.

How many cuts would this process guarantee? None. The parties would go back to fighting over spending through the appropriations process, which would “only” lead to government shutdowns, instead of an economic collapse. Rather, McConnell’s effort is about politics — it would give Republicans the upper hand when it comes to whining, on three separate occasions, about Democrats doing the right-but-unpopular thing.

McConnell wouldn’t lower the deficit, but he would get the chance to complain an awful lot about Obama using the power that McConnell is eager to give him.

The plan is childish, petty, and more than a little pathetic, but as it happens, those adjectives describe congressional Republicans rather well, too.

The next question is whether such a proposal has any credible shot at being adopted. Senate Democrats have “privately embraced the idea,” seeing it as a viable way to circumvent the GOP-created crisis. The White House still prefers to strike an actual debt-reduction deal, but sees McConnell’s plan as a viable fall-back option. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) seemed quite pleased with the Senate Minority Leader’s proposal, which under normal circumstances, would mean a great deal.

But these aren’t normal circumstances. By all accounts, House Republicans, and even several far-right GOP senators, hate McConnell’s proposal, and won’t even consider supporting it.

We’re looking at the very real possibility that the top two Republicans in Congress — the Senate Minority Leader and the Speaker of the House — have no meaningful influence over how their caucuses resolve a crisis of their own making.

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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  • Jeff In Ohio on July 13, 2011 8:03 AM:

    I'd think this would present the Dems with an opportunity to beat the GOP over the head for abdicating their constitutional power of the purse. Why does the GOP hate America, anyway?

  • Mr. Serf Man on July 13, 2011 8:07 AM:

    I am waiting for someone, anyone to come out in front of the cameras and say "Look the debt limit was increased X number of times by the Republicans with no questions asked. This is not the time and the place give us a clean bill"
    I imagine I will keep waiting.
    (oh Mr. Weiner you would have been perfect for this , why did you have to be such an asshole?)

    some ndsYou indeed Mr Captcha

  • FRP on July 13, 2011 8:08 AM:

    It takes a worried man to sing a worried song

    Hey ! Howduuya get a crazy man to act sane ?

    Well it is either easy or complicated

    But if you offer him his least favorite poison he may just rationally decline ...

  • SteveT on July 13, 2011 8:09 AM:

    I wish Minority Mitch McConnell would drop all pretense that he's an adult and just hold his breath until he turns blue. And then he should keep holding it for another ten minutes or so.

  • Danp on July 13, 2011 8:09 AM:

    As I understand McConnell's proposal, Obama also would not be allowed to propose any revenue increases. I'd like to see Obama say he will have to discuss this with White House Counsel to see whether Congress has the right to abdicate its responsibilities. Then he should say that in any case he has no intention of proposing absurd solutions as suggested by McConnell.

  • c u n d gulag on July 13, 2011 8:12 AM:

    "The plan is childish, petty, and more than a little pathetic..."
    I think you're being too kind, Steve.

    But you're right - they do want to play "Tag, you're IT!!!" with Obama and the Democrats until November 2012.
    All the while, bitching, whining, and moaning about every singel move. Well, it is what they do best after all.


  • blondie on July 13, 2011 8:14 AM:

    First, I despise this "plan" put forth by McYertle.

    Next, one thing I've noticed in coverage of the disintegration of the Republican "caucus" is how everyone agrees that the leadership (in both chambers) can't control their members.

    When it comes to actually passing a proposal, WHO CARES?

    The only thing legislation needs to pass is a majority (either 50% +1 or 60 senators). As long as Boner can round up 218 votes, it doesn't matter if the vast majority are Dems, with just a handful of Rs to push past that number - and I'd like to point out, he's Speaker of the HOUSE, not the majority leader, so at least in theory he's supposed to be reaching across the aisle. Same thing with McYertle in the Senate.

    Yes, that would reveal for all to see just how weak they are in their "leadership" positions vis-a-vis their own party. But it would be the right thing for the country.

    Oh. That's right. They're Republicans. They don't care.

  • DAY on July 13, 2011 8:14 AM:

    This reminds me of the ongoing squabble between Patton and Montgomery, all throughout WWII.

    All about self aggrandisement first, winning the war second.

    Ike, it looks like you are needed once again. . .

  • bdop4 on July 13, 2011 8:22 AM:

    Since debt reduction as an economic solution is a complete scam, it's probably a good thing that Obama won't be able to apply funds to spending cuts.

    Instead, he should draw down the full amount and PUT PEOPLE TO WORK. The short-term stimulus should have the economy humming by election time.

    Who, other than the "job creationists" (credit to Wyeth Cenac and TDS), is going to vote against that?

  • Al on July 13, 2011 8:23 AM:

    It's really very simple. We don't have to default to everyone. We just have to default to the Chinese, the French and other countries that aren't our allies.

  • BrianTH on July 13, 2011 8:23 AM:

    I think the question is whether if the Republican caucuses blow apart, will in fact McConnell and Boehner actually be able to muster enough votes to join with the Democrats to get things done? That isn't obvious, particularly since the fact they are joining with Democrats will put a lot of downward pressure on the number of votes they can deliver.

  • Josef K on July 13, 2011 8:30 AM:

    I find myself actually hoping this 'plan' gets rejected or McConnell declares he won't support it. This whole process needs to be finished, one way or the other, as I doubt our country can take another such 'hostage situtation'.

  • Marko on July 13, 2011 8:31 AM:

    So if I read this correctly, Obama can make any kind of absurd proposals for cuts that he wants (because they will be ignored anyway), as long as it is equal to the amount of the debt ceiling to be raised. So what if he just cuts the entire military budget and sends that for approval?

    Approval denied (both chambers). President vetoes the denied approval. Veto override fails (both chambers). Debt limit raised. Military cuts ignored.

    So if the Republicans really want some good Kabuki Theater, that would get top billing.

  • FRP on July 13, 2011 8:32 AM:

    Ike had it easy , Nixon is still a disgusting criminal , and Hoover is probably McConnell's Love Child .

    PS just probably joking about the procreation bit

  • KP on July 13, 2011 8:33 AM:

    Would that be Constitutional? I mean, if a line-item veto is unconstitutional because it equates to Congress ceding authority over spending to the Executive, how is this little gimmick not the same thing?

  • hell's littlest angel on July 13, 2011 8:35 AM:

    Quoting Railroad Jerk! Suddenly, FRP makes sense to me!

    Hey, for those of you whose poor little eyes have such a hard time reading the captcha challenge, click the little speaker icon and you get an audio challenge! It's like voices from a creepy dream. Really cool.

  • martin on July 13, 2011 8:44 AM:

    childish, petty, and more than a little pathetic

    add "Vote Republican" and you've got yourself a hell of a bumper sticker there Steve;>

  • dcshungu on July 13, 2011 8:49 AM:

    The McConnell ploy confirms what was amply clear all along: the GOP had no interest in reducing the deficit; it was all about politics and winning back the White House and Senate Majority. Considering the alternative, however, I must agree with Ezra Klein ("In praise of McConnell�s plan" http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/in-praise-of-mcconnells-plan/2011/07/11/gIQAoiHHBI_blog.html?hpid=z1 ) that this is not such a bad deal. The hostages are freed but then the President and the Dems will now need to work on "damage control" for accepting the shady deal (read: negotiating with the terrorists) that got the hostages (US creditworthiness and economy) out of harm's way. The Dems now need to ensure that they do not get blamed. Tough do do under the circumstances but I am sure that these Republicans will overreach again, making the job easier...

  • davidp on July 13, 2011 8:56 AM:

    McConnell's proposal shows that, unable to reach internal agreement, the GOP has abandoned its responsibility to govern and is confining itself to making rhetorical statements. It is the equivalent of having Congress vote on whether climate change is real, or for that matter on whether Christ rose from the dead. It's the next stage in the progressing Foxization of the party.

  • dcshungu on July 13, 2011 9:02 AM:

    Hmmm...Foxization, I prefer Foxnication, which does to the party exactly what it rhymes with...

  • ComradeAnon on July 13, 2011 9:03 AM:

    Obama shold counter with an offer to get rid of this ridiculous debt limit. There is no use for it other than posturing.

  • danimal on July 13, 2011 9:12 AM:

    Could it be that Boehner and McConnell have been telling Wall Street that "we've got the debt ceiling covered" and are now realizing that their caucus would rather create a recession than back off?

  • eserwe on July 13, 2011 9:25 AM:

    It's really very simple. We don't have to default to everyone. We just have to default to the Chinese, the French and other countries that aren't our allies. - Al

    Best proposal ever to drop the credit rating of the US from AAA to D on a moments notice. Good luck with the interest on US debt after that.

  • j on July 13, 2011 9:46 AM:

    If McConnell's proposal goes through, the dems should put in a bill periodically with the programs (like the Pentagon) that could save money & also include revenue (like getting rid of corporate
    welfare) to work on the debt problem. The repubs will never let them pass because
    they love corporate welfare, but they won't be able to whine that Obama is not doing anything about the debt.

  • Joe Friday on July 13, 2011 9:54 AM:

    Since McConnell's plan is "non-binding", then Obama could propose raising taxes on the Rich & Corporate, cutting military spending, cutting Corporate Welfare, and eliminating subsidies to the oil, timber, and mining industries.

    The Dems would gladly vote in favor, as that's what the American people favor, and the Republicans can vote against.

    WIN WIN.

  • June on July 13, 2011 9:59 AM:

    I really hope our Dems do not accept this trapdoor of a deal. The GOP/Koch Party will use their bottomless funding, Fox News megaphone, and MSM "both parties do it" complacency to continue to build their false case that the Prez and Democrats are the sole cause of the enormous deficit and recession the GOP willfully created. Dems are dreaming if they think they will be able to combat the massive GOP message machine that would seize on this. Besides that, do your f*cking jobs, Messrs. McConnell, Boehner and Cantor. Dems should not voluntarily shoulder the burdens of these buffoons.

  • Ron Mexico on July 13, 2011 10:57 AM:

    I'm with June; if McConnell and Boehner are concerned about what a default would do to the world economy and think it's important, they should either pass a clean bill or come up with a compromise bill. If I'm Obama, I say this, and say to them (and publicly) that I don't believe McConnell's plan to be Constitutional and can't support it.

  • ohhenery on July 13, 2011 11:55 AM:

    Generalissimo McConnell had a farm
    And on his farm he had some ___ucks