Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried Wednesday to tamp down conservative angst over his proposal to let President Barack Obama raise the debt ceiling — even as Democratic leaders and the White House praised him for offering it.
The Kentucky Republican warned on the “Laura Ingraham Show” that allowing a debt default to occur would “destroy” the GOP brand and help re-elect Obama, just as the 1995 government shutdown helped re-elect President Bill Clinton.
“They want to blame the economy on us, and the reason default is no better idea today than it was when Newt Gingrich tried it in 1995 is it destroys your brand, and [it] would give the president an opportunity to blame Republicans for a bad economy. … I refuse to help Barack Obama get re-elected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy,” McConnell said.
He warned that as lawmakers press up against the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt limit, the administration will send letters to 80 million Social Security recipients and to military families, “and they will all start attacking Members of Congress.”
But McConnell’s defense, which continued at a lunch with fellow Republicans, didn’t win over many conservatives, who consider his plan a near-total capitulation.
“Republicans were elected last November to get control of spending, borrowing and debt,” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said. “The last thing we should do is make it easier to spend and borrow money.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said there was not much difference between voting to increase the debt limit directly and voting to give the president the authority to raise it, as McConnell’s plan would do.
Lee said it would be akin to a Member of Congress voting to give the president the authority to go to war while contending that he didn’t vote for the war itself.
And he said it saps conservatives of leverage on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. “No one would ever signal to a military opponent, if we don’t get what we want, we’re just going to retreat,” Lee said.
A GOP leadership aide said the political advantages of McConnell’s plan are obvious — they force Obama to repeatedly request more debt heading into the election and to publicly list cuts he would support, and the Democrats would have to vote to block disapproval resolutions.
“If you were to go down this route, the public would not be confused about who’s doing more spending,” another GOP leadership aide said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he understood McConnell’s plan had political appeal but that people — particularly House Republican freshmen — are looking for results.
“They didn’t come up here worried about the brand,” Graham said when asked about McConnell’s statement. “They came up here worried about the country.”
Graham said he could consider the proposal if nothing else gets through the House.
“If the House can’t produce anything, I don’t want to just default for the hell of it,” he said.
McConnell did have supporters, particularly among his leadership team.
“Remember, if everything else fails and everybody’s great ideas don’t come to pass and it’s the day before Aug. 2, something has to be done,” Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) said. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also strongly backed the last-resort idea as “a smart, forward-looking plan” that would put the onus on Obama.
House Republicans, however, warned the plan would not fly — at least not yet.
Establishment allies of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) conceded in the Speaker’s Lobby on Wednesday that McConnell’s plan was “dead on arrival” in the House, even as Boehner has praised his Senate counterpart’s work.
Boehner has not stated specifically that he endorses the plan, while Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) warned neither the McConnell plan nor any other could yet pass the House.
“Currently, there is not a single debt limit proposal that can pass the House of Representatives,” Cantor said in a statement Wednesday, challenging Obama to detail a $3 trillion package of cuts and no revenue increases.
Other Republicans and Democrats had lukewarm comments about the plan as a last resort, but there remains a bipartisan yearning for a package that includes upfront spending cuts and long-term reforms to deal with the debt.
Top Democratic leaders from both chambers huddled Wednesday on the Senate side of the Capitol before yet another White House meeting and mulled using McConnell’s idea as part of a hybrid approach — paired with spending cuts and possibly a new fiscal commission being considered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“We could couple it with other things,” House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said. But Democrats don’t have a consensus on what those “other things” might be.
The new fiscal commission would have “teeth,” Democrats said, including expedited floor consideration, and would consist of Members of Congress. But the GOP blocked a similar proposal last year.
Reid earlier Wednesday praised McConnell’s framework on the floor as a “unique proposal, something that we have to look at very closely. I’m heartened by what I read. This is a serious proposal, and I commend the Republican leader for coming forward with it.”
Van Hollen, meanwhile, called out the GOP for attacking McConnell’s proposal.
“You have Republicans trashing a proposal put forward by the Republican leader in the Senate. I think people need to wake up to the fact that these guys message their sins: ‘We’re prepared to take the entire economy, put millions of jobs at risk, unless we get things 100 percent our way,’” Van Hollen said.
But some Democrats also trashed the McConnell idea as an abdication of leadership.
“It's one of the worst ideas I have ever heard,” Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.) said. “To just kick the can down the road and wipe their hands of any responsibility is the height of irresponsibility. … I must say when I heard this plan it took my breath away.”
Humberto Sanchez and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.