Now that the table is set, here’s how the proposed plan would work: Republicans in Congress would agree to vote to authorize the president to propose three separate incremental debt ceiling increases, spaced over the remainder of his term. He would be required to couple each request with a corresponding set of spending cuts that exceed the dollar amount of his sought-after debt limit hike. These cuts would be of his choosing alone. The first pair of requests would come prior to the August 2 deadline. It would be for roughly $700 Billion. The next requests, for $900 Billion, would come in the fall, and the final tranche (also for $900 Billion) would be scheduled for summer of 2012 — in the thick of the campaign cycle.
In all likelihood, on each occasion, Republicans would overwhelmingly vote to disapprove of the president’s debt ceiling increase request. This allows GOP members (and almost certainly some vulnerable Democrats) to technically vote “no” on raising the debt ceiling. If, as is likely, simple majorities in both houses vote to disapprove of the president’s requests, he’d be forced to veto each disapproval, pinging the issue back to Capitol Hill. If Congress can’t override those vetos with 2/3 majorities (and Republicans won’t have the votes, even with some Democrats), the debt ceiling will increase. But not without the exacting a substantial political price from the president and his allies in Congress. They will own the debt ceiling hike. Period. Members of Congress who vote with the president will set themselves up to be targeted by brutal attack ads (“so-and-so has voted to increase the national debt limit three times in the last year alone,” etc).
It sounds complicated but it’s not. This achieves two things in one fell swoop: (1) it provides a nearly foolproof mechanism to avoid default armageddon in case the two sides can’t make a deal by August 2, which will reassure markets, and (2) by investing Obama with near-unilateral power to raise the ceiling (it’s not fully unilateral because Congress could, in theory, override him with a 2/3 vote), it makes him almost wholly responsible for the debt hike, which will be a major political liability with the election around the corner and a plurality of voters still more worried about raising the ceiling than letting a default happen. After a month of shrieking from lefty legal experts about how the Fourteenth Amendment supposedly lets O ignore the ceiling, here’s McConnell calling their bluff. You want to own America’s debt problem? Enjoy.
Dave Weigel says he can’t see why any Republican would vote for something like this when Obama already owns the debt problem. The answer: Because if talks break down and default looms, which seems increasingly likely given even moderate Dems’ demands for tax concessions and the House GOP’s unhappiness with a medium-sized debt deal, it almost certainly won’t be Obama who owns the fallout. For a variety of reasons, including but not limited to media Narrative-building and The One’s own determined efforts to position himself as a “centrist pragmatist” even if it means reducing the chances of making a deal, it’ll be the GOP who bears the brunt politically. (A Pew poll taken last month found 42 percent would blame Republicans if no deal got done versus 33 percent who’d blame the White House.) McConnell’s bill is anticipating that and trying to salvage a political victory from likely defeat by punting the whole mess to The One if no deal can be reached. It’ll be horribly, horribly disappointing if the big debt-ceiling showdown results in nothing more than a few trillion in cuts of Obama’s own choosing, but the alternative if talks break down is no cuts at all, a possible economic tailspin, and endless media shrieking about how this never would have happened if it not for those darned wingnuts and their fetish for rich people.
Long story short, the debt-ceiling showdown was a big gamble and this is McConnell’s way of hedging the party’s bets at the eleventh hour. Unsatisfying, but if it happens and O faces a nasty backlash for raising the ceiling, it’s a compelling argument next year for why we need a Republican president and more Republican congressmen. A serious deal on long-term sustainability simply isn’t possible with the left in control of one or more branches of government. If the GOP wants to do this, they’ll have to do it themselves. And then reap the consequences.