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White House Asks for End to Debt Limit Votes, McConnell Says

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
McConnell said talks on the fiscal cliff “took a step backward” Thursday after a meeting with the Treasury secretary.

The Obama administration is asking to eliminate Congress’ role in raising the debt ceiling as part of a fiscal cliff deal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Roll Call in an interview Thursday.

The White House dispatched Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner to Capitol Hill earlier in the day, and his meeting with McConnell clearly did not go well from the Republican leader’s perspective. In a public statement released after the meeting, McConnell said talks “took a step backward.” When asked what that meant, McConnell mentioned the debt ceiling issue specifically.

“I think it was a meeting just to show that there was a meeting,” McConnell said. He said negotiations are in worse shape than they were two weeks ago, when leaders huddled at the White House. “I don’t think they were asking for $1.6 trillion in new revenue [two weeks ago] and they also want a permanent debt ceiling increase,” he said.

McConnell said that both issues constituted “highly irresponsible talk” and said the White House efforts Thursday were not what he “would consider ... serious.”

Geithner told Bloomberg TV recently that the U.S. should eliminate the debt ceiling “the sooner the better.”

One source familiar with the conversation said the White House would like a new law written that would take away the authority of Congress to approve the extension of the nation’s borrowing capacity and leave it solely in the hands of the president. The votes to raise the debt ceiling would be eliminated entirely and automatic increases would be triggered, said two additional Hill sources.

A senior administration official contested that the $1.6 trillion figure is higher than the target set previously by the White House, pointing to a September 2011 budget blueprint submitted to Congress by President Barack Obama that included $1.5 trillion target for tax reform. The official did not immediately respond to a question about the debt ceiling request.

A House GOP leadership aide confirmed that Geithner asked for the same “permanent” extension of the debt ceiling from Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. in their meeting Thursday.

Top Democrats, from Obama to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have been saying all week that an increase in the debt limit would have to be part of any package. Other Democrats, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, have suggested that the 14th Amendment could be invoked to remove Congress from the equation.

“The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payments of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion,” a key sentence in the amendment born out of the Civil War reads, “shall not be questioned.”

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