McConnell Turns Debt Ceiling Into a Political Football
Policy + Politics

McConnell Turns Debt Ceiling Into a Political Football

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

In a troubling sign the wheels are coming off the budget talks, Republicans today intensified their criticism of President Obama while offering a complicated legislative alternative that would allow Obama to raise the debt ceiling on his own to avoid default – without Congress having to approve it or assume part of the political responsibility.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, charged that Obama has yet to outline his budget priorities and “lay his cards on the table,” and that as far as he was concerned, “the debt limit increase is his problem.” Later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared that Congress and the White House probably cannot reach a real solution to the long term debt “as long as this president is in the Oval Office.”

With only a few weeks left before the August 2 deadline for raising the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling to avert the first default in U.S. history, McConnell this afternoon outlined an alternate legislative plan that would give Obama incremental authority to raise the debt ceiling three times between now and the end of his term in January 2013. Each time he requested an increase in borrowing authority – $700 billion the first time and $900 billion in each of the second and third installments – the president would also have to provide a list of spending cuts equivalent to those installments.

Congress would not be required to approve the request, but could approve resolutions of disapproval to prevent the Treasury from increasing its borrowing authority. The president could then veto the resolutions of disapproval, and it would take a mere one third plus one vote of either the House or the Senate to sustain the president’s vetoes.

McConnell, Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have said repeatedly they are not in favor of a default, and acknowledge that it could result in a catastrophic upheaval in the markets. But they have insisted that any measure to raise the debt ceiling be tied to a tough package of spending cuts but no tax revenues. But if they shifted to this new plan, Republicans would essentially be abandoning efforts to lock in deep spending cuts this year, as part of the debt ceiling vote.

“This is not my first choice,” McConnell said in outlining the alternate plan. “I had hoped all year long that the opportunity presented by his request of us to raise the debt ceiling would generate a bipartisan agreement that would begin to get our house in order by reducing spending. That may still happen. I still hope it will. But we are certainly not going to send a signal to the markets and the American people that default is an option.”

Obama said on Monday that he was determined to press for a major budget deal with as much as $4 trillion in spending cuts, entitlement reforms and tax increases over the next decade and that he would reject short term measures to extend the debt ceiling by a few months while the talks continue. McConnell's Rube Goldberg legislative contraption is the antithesis of what Obama said on Monday he would be willing to accept.

In an exclusive interview with CBS on Tuesday, Obama said he cannot guarantee that retirees will receive their Social Security checks August 3 if Democrats and Republicans in Washington do not reach an agreement on reducing the deficit in the coming weeks.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Tuesday he would consider cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security if they were part of a "grand bargain” that includes tax increases.

Obama and Republican and Democratic negotiators were scheduled to meet this afternoon  for the third consecutive day of meetings. In the last few negotiating sessions they have focused on the details of a budget framework produced by a small, bipartisan group that was led by Vice President Joe Biden. Before the talks collapsed, the Biden group targeted $2.1 to $2.3 trillion in potential savings, according to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.

On Monday the President made a last-ditch plea for a $4 trillion long-term deficit-reduction “Big Deal,” which includes taxes as well as reductions in Social Security and Medicare benefits. “I continue to push congressional leaders for the largest possible deal,” Obama said at a news conference at the White House. “And there's going to be resistance.” Republicans are seeking a smaller, $2.4 trillion budget deal that would not include revenues or eliminate tax breaks for the rich.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., flatly rejected the Republicans’ claim that the debt ceiling was strictly the president’s responsibility, and pointed out to reporters that most of the country’s debt incurred under Republicans, most recently President George W. Bush’s administration.  “I think it’s absurd,” he said. “I think it’s dishonest. The assertion that somehow the President is responsible for the debt is not true.”

Hoyer described the budget talks at the White House as “candid” and said Cantor has done most of the talking. At the White House yesterday Cantor used color-coded charts to present his vision of how to get almost all the way to $2.4 trillion in 10-year savings without raising taxes. He proposed $250 billion in Medicare cuts including $50 billion in post-acute care /cost sharing for skilled nursing facilities and home health; up to $16 billion in clinical lab payments/copays/etc., and up to $53 billion in Medigap cuts.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., added to the intense rhetoric and called Cantor’s proposals “troubling.” 

“This approach is not balanced, it's not fair, it's not moral, and it will not be accepted,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday. Schumer added that Republicans “would sooner end Medicare as we know it than ask millionaires and billionaires to pay a little more in taxes.”

Cantor has said that Republicans have made “plenty of shared sacrifice” and that his party has already made compromises by agreeing to increase the debt limit per request of the President. He repeated his stance that Republicans will not increase taxes and won’t vote to increase the debt ceiling without offsetting cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. 

“I hope Boehner and Cantor can work together to get us to that adult moment,” Hoyer said.

More on the debt limit debate from The Fiscal Times:
World Series of Deficit Reduction: Game One—Tied
Obama Makes 11th-Hour Plea for a “Big Deal”
Debt Talks Unintended Consequences: Job Losses