Senate Republicans are likely to get a vote on the Cut, Cap and Balance Act in addition to the balanced budget amendment as soon as next week.
The Senate Democratic majority appears ready to go along with the plan in an attempt to let its GOP colleagues cast votes in favor of hard-line spending positions before Republicans are asked to take a tough vote on a possible Plan B to avert government default on the national debt.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said for weeks that his Conference will get a floor vote on an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the government from spending more money than it takes in. Such a measure has the support of all 47 members of his Conference. But in an important strategic move, the Kentucky Republican is now pushing for a vote on the Cut, Cap and Balance Act, which began as a spending pledge among the most conservative members of his party, but now is a bill he joined as a co-sponsor this week.
The pledge states that lawmakers will oppose any debt limit increase that does not also include a corresponding package of "substantial" cuts, enforceable spending caps and passage of the balanced budget amendment.
Though both the spending legislation and the constitutional amendment are likely to fail, the votes could be a carrot for Members outwardly upset by McConnell's Plan B proposal but who privately agree with him that Republicans need to ensure that Democrats take the blame if the economy continues to falter leading into the 2012 elections. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other officials have warned of the potential disastrous consequences for the economy if the U.S. defaults on its debt.
McConnell's plan would make it somewhat easier to raise the debt limit in the short term, but it would allow the Congress to vote on resolutions of disapproval. The plan also would require a series of three votes on raising the nation's debt ceiling without guaranteed spending cuts.
In a statement responding to President Barack Obama's fourth media availability in a week, McConnell juxtaposed the continued failure of bipartisan talks at the White House with the Congressional action demanded by Republicans next week.
"I had high hopes that the administration would be able to work with us to reduce our deficit, " McConnell said. "Now the debate will move from a room in the White House to the House and Senate floors. Next week, the Senate will vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, the Cut, Cap and Balance plan will start in the House, and we will continue to press for more deficit reduction."
With an Aug. 2 deadline to avert government default looming, McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have ramped up negotiations to design a package that would raise the debt ceiling and hopefully strike the right balance to have some chance to clear the House.
Senate and House Democrats huddled Wednesday to discuss a plan that would use the McConnell proposal as a framework for a hybrid plan that also could include a number of the spending cuts discussed that emerged from talks led by Vice President Joseph Biden. Additional cuts could come from this week's White House discussions, and Democrats have said they also would like to create a joint committee on deficit reduction, which would be empowered with fast-track authority for floor votes.
While neither side is ecstatic about the prospect of McConnell's plan — it would place the burden of voting to lift the debt ceiling on Democrats and would fail to ensure the steep cuts touted by Republicans — the posturing of the past week suggests they are embracing it as a viable escape plan if another deal becomes impossible.
The likely votes on the balanced budget amendment and the Cut, Cap and Balance Act could play perfectly into this narrative.
"Everyone gets to vote on their Plan A before they go to Plan B," one Senate Republican aide said. "It's an important opportunity for everyone to go on the record for what they'd rather do — including people who support the McConnell plan. Everyone recognizes it's not a first choice, so it lets them show what would be while showing that Democrats are less willing to reduce spending."
It gives Republicans, especially of the tea party variety, an opportunity to sound off on the same issues that swept them into office last November.
But those votes may not satisfy all conservative rabble-rousers. As leaders quietly worked toward a legislative solution Friday, conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) warned that he would lead a filibuster of McConnell's debt limit increase proposal.
"I'll use every tool in Senate to stop passage of 'Plan B' blank check debt limit increase," DeMint posted to Twitter on Friday. "No Republican was elected to give President Obama more power and that's what this plan does."
DeMint added in a another tweet, "GOP wasn't sent to Washington to cut, run & hide from debt fight with 'fallback' plan. We need to pass cut, cap & balance."
By giving into the demands of Members like DeMint with votes next week, it's possible leaders can avoid a filibuster that could jeopardize their delicate deal.
The conservative Club for Growth ripped the McConnell fallback plan as "everything that is wrong with Washington" and dismissed the Aug. 2 deadline as "meaningless."
Standard & Poor's, however, has indicated that hitting the Aug. 2 deadline without a deal would lead to a "selective default" rating on the debt, even if interest payments are made, and that it likely would have severe short-term and long-term consequences. The ratings company also warned Thursday that it is likely to downgrade the AAA-rated federal debt unless Congress reaches a $4 trillion deficit reduction deal sometime in the next 90 days.