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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) may have found a way to prevent the government from reaching a catastrophic default on its debt, ensure that his Republican Conference members won't have to vote again on the debt limit before the next election and force President Barack Obama to own the political consequences.
On Tuesday, McConnell unveiled a backup plan of last resort to increase the debt ceiling and cut spending, but primarily it appeared to be a political strategy to put the burden on Democrats — and the White House. That doesn't mean it was met warmly, however, even by members of his own Conference.
As talks between Congressional leaders and the White House remained in a stalemate, McConnell's bold move could expose him to political risk, sources said, because it might alienate a conservative contingent looking for deeper spending cuts. Yet it also puts him back into a debate that so far has been dominated by his House counterparts.
Under McConnell's Plan B, the president would send a request to Congress for a series of three debt limit increases between now and the 2012 elections, but those increases would have to be offset with proposals for spending reductions elsewhere. Congress would be allowed to vote on joint resolutions of disapproval intended to kill the increases, but the president would be able to veto those resolutions. Congress then would have to come up with a two-thirds supermajority to prevent the debt ceiling from increasing.
Because Obama would need to initiate the request, veto it and then rely on a Democratic Senate majority to cement his veto, the McConnell plan would put most of the onus of raising the debt ceiling on Democrats.
Asked to detail the contingency plan after leaving a special meeting scheduled to discuss the proposal, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said, "It's a political response."
When pressed further on whether McConnell's plan would be a protection against default or an outline of spending caps that Republicans are seeking, Coburn said, "No, it's a political answer."
Just hours before meeting for the third time this week at the White House with other Congressional leaders and Obama, McConnell told reporters, "If we're unable to come together, we think it's extremely important to this country to reassure the markets that default is not an option. If the White House talks lead not to a conclusion that we can go forward together to reduce spending, which is our single biggest problem, then what is the alternative? ... This is, again, not my first choice."