WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell's plan to increase the nation's debt in some ways seeks to offer Republicans political cover by shifting responsibility to President Barack Obama, but it puts the minority leader in the crosshairs of some Tea Party activists who accuse him of capitulating.
"This is, again, not my first choice," McConnell said during a press conference Tuesday. All year long, he said, he had hoped for bipartisan agreement on the debt ceiling that also would begin to reduce spending.
"That may still happen," he said. "I still hope it will, but we're certainly not going to send a signal to the markets and to the American people that default is an option."
Tea Party message boards were abuzz with the news of what one poster in the Tea Party Nation forum called the "Pontius Pilate Pass the Buck Act of 2011".
"If Mitch McConnell thinks caving to President Obama and allowing him to raise the debt ceiling without cuts is the way to become Senate Majority Leader he is sorely mistaken," said Brent Bozell, a conservative activist and chairman of For America, a conservative leaning nonprofit, in a statement. "The American people elected him to serve as a check on Obama's appetite for out-of-control spending, not to write him a blank check to continue the binge. It's these sorts of shenanigans that got Republicans thrown out of power in 2006."
Judson Phillips, Tea Party Nation's founder, said he didn't know all the details of McConnell's plan. But based on what he does know, he said, "I'd call it the Great Sellout of 2011."
"McConnell is one of those moderate Republicans who wants to surrender early and surrender often," Phillips said. "When I start to hear about a McConnell plan or a Boehner plan, I shriek in horror."
McConnell unveiled his plan, aimed at breaking the deepening division between the political parties in the high-level deficit reduction talks, to fellow senate Republicans during a Tuesday lunch meeting. The Kentucky Republican's proposal, which House of Representatives officials and congressional Democrats have not yet evaluated, would have Obama propose lifting the debt ceiling by $700 billion in the first of three phrases.
He would make that request to Congress by Aug. 2, the date the government is expected to exhaust its borrowing authority. He also would submit proposed spending cuts exceeding that same amount.
McConnell's proposed $700 billion increase, expected to cover government obligations through the fall, would go into effect unless Congress disapproved. Republicans would probably vote no, since the debt limit increase would not be paired with the spending cuts they want.
If the no vote won, Obama would probably veto the bill. Since Democrats have enough votes to sustain that veto, the higher debt limit would go into effect, and Republicans would be able to complain that Democrats would not back dramatic spending cuts.
Obama would then offer two more debt limit increases, of $900 billion each, later this year or next year. Those increases would presumably cover government debt through the end of Obama's term in January 2013. Obama is seeking a $2.4 trillion increase over that period.
Ironically, the McConnell plan would essentially allow a "clean" debt limit, one without any of the deficit reduction now being discussed in the White House talks. Liberal Democrats have long urged a debt limit without such strings.
Fellow Kentucky congressionally approved balanced budget amendment before raising the debt limit. Sen. Rand Paul, one of the Tea Party's most prominent voices, steered clear of commenting on McConnell's plan and instead said he is focusing on the "cut, cap and balance" plan which requires a congressionally approved balanced budget amendment before raising the debt limit.
"We are working to get the House and Senate to move on this," Moira Bagley, Paul's spokeswoman, said Tuesday.
President Barack Obama said Monday he would not back any short-term debt limit plan, though the White House has not yet commented on McConnell's new offer.
Much of Tuesday's public debate involved the two parties' leaders sniping at one another. McConnell blasted Obama and Democrats for blocking any effort to reach a bipartisan deficit reduction deal, saying their proposed savings were "smoke and mirrors."
"I was one of those who had long hoped we could do something big for the country," McConnell said in a Senate floor speech that illustrated how party lines are hardening as negotiators prepared to meet at the White House for a third straight day of talks.
"But in my view the President has presented us with three choices: smoke and mirrors, tax hikes, or default. Republicans choose none of the above," McConnell said. "I hoped to do good; but I refuse to do harm."
(William Douglas contributed)
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