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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."
McConnell held an additional meeting Tuesday morning with his Conference to outline the plan, modeled after the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to overturn federal agency regulations with measures of disapproval. And while the Minority Leader made it clear to reporters the tactic was a "last-choice option," it's also evident McConnell was not coy about its political intent with his members, 12 of whom have signed the Cut, Cap and Balance Pledge. That pledge signifies, "We would not support any debt limit plan that didn't first satisfy those conditions," according to an aide to a signatory.
GOP aides did not overtly deny that there would be political incentives to enacting the plan, which would put Democrats on the spot three times before the 2012 elections. Under the plan, Congress would have to vote first this month for a $700 billion increase, a second time this fall for an additional $900 billion and a third time next summer for another
$900 billion. But they also said that by including a provisional $100 billion that would be immediately added to the debt ceiling at the time of the president's first request, they are putting an option on the table to avert default on Aug. 2.
First, however, Congress would have to pass a bill to set up the votes and resolutions of disapproval, putting Republicans on the hook for voting for that additional $100 billion in debt. It's unclear whether such a measure would come anywhere close to getting the support of House Republicans or Senate Democrats, both of whom would need to play along for the strategy to be successful.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday afternoon, "I'm not about to trash his proposal. It's something I'll look at." Reid added that he and McConnell had discussed the measure briefly Tuesday.
Tuesday on Fox News, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, "Everybody believes there needs to be a backup plan ... and, frankly, I think Mitch has done good work."
McConnell apparently was inspired to launch his plan after a nearly two-hour-long White House meeting Monday afternoon during which leaders reviewed spending cuts identified last month by a bipartisan group led by Vice President Joseph Biden. McConnell asked only one question, according to a Republican source familiar with the talks: "How much does the Biden plan actually cut from next year's discretionary spending budget?"
Obama's Office of Management and Budget director, Jacob Lew, told him, "$2 billion," at which point McConnell expressed his frustration that no one in the room was taking their task seriously.
Whether McConnell's political gamble will pay off is yet to be seen. The proposal was discussed at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.
However, the proposal was dismissed immediately by conservatives, who accused the leader of effectively caving on the debt limit and choosing a classic Washington political strategy instead of forcing the kinds of cuts that the right has been demanding.
Of note, the Senate Republican proposal does not require any upfront cuts from the president.
"McConnell's plan is an irresponsible surrender to big government, big deficits and continued overspending. I oppose it," 2012 presidential hopeful and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) tweeted.
And a GOP Senate aide criticized it as well, saying, "Many Republican Senators are furious that they were ambushed with this proposal that would have them vote to give Obama unilateral authority to borrow $2 trillion more in exchange for nothing. This wasn't leadership, it was surrender."
Still, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he supports the McConnell contingency plan. But Blunt said it's really a "Plan Z."
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.