WASHINGTON — On the surface, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell maintained a veneer of glacial calm, but inside he was fuming.
"Am I right in assuming that what I'm looking at is a $2 billion cut to next year's spending and the rest is caps?" McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, asked Obama administration budget director Jack Lew during a closed-door meeting earlier this month with White House officials.
According to McConnell staffers who were in the room, McConnell looked at Lew incredulously. There was no way such a relatively small amount was going to fly with his caucus's conservatives. McConnell leaned back in his chair.
It was mid-July, just under two weeks away from the looming Aug. 2 debt default deadline. The aides, who spoke privately about the discussions because they weren't authorized to speak on the record, say that McConnell, ever the pragmatist, now was more worried than ever that Democrats and Republicans might not get past the debt stalemate.
It was time for Plan B.
As debt talks have taken on soap opera-like proportions, McConnell — a key negotiator who has longed to strike the type of historic negotiation that made fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay famous — has worked to strike a balance between brainstorming bipartisan solutions and careful 2012 political calculations. Along the way he's weathered blowback from the tea party — one of the key constituencies McConnell has worked hard to court since the group's support in 2010 helped catapult Sen. Rand Paul into office and led to broad gains in the House.
He also has tried surreptitiously to sidestep what staffers see as an attempt by some Democrats to force a debt compromise more favorable to their own party by driving a wedge between himself and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
This week alone, as public attention focused on Boehner's attempts to wrangle the tea party-backed members of his caucus to get behind his measure to cut deficits and raise the nation's debt limit, McConnell both publicly and privately worked overtime to shore up those efforts.
All the while, "the clock is ticking," McConnell said Thursday on the Senate floor. "In just a few days, the U.S. government will no longer have the ability to borrow money to pay its bills — a situation that the president and his advisers have said would trigger an economic Armageddon."
McConnell had long seen the writing on the wall.
In the past, as far as he was concerned, conversations with the White House about resolving the debt and entitlement reform were flickers of hope quickly doused by cold disappointment.
Still, when Vice President Joe Biden reached out to McConnell in late December, McConnell crossed his fingers.
Aides say McConnell considered Biden, a former Delaware senator, an affable negotiator, and he was encouraged by signs during debt talks that Democrats would steer clear of tax increases even as Republicans avoided cuts to Social Security.
Both sides landed on Medicare to produce additional savings, and McConnell considered the conversations very productive.
But by June, much to Republican leaders' surprise, $400 billion in new taxes increases were on the table.
Incensed at this turn of events, congressional Republicans pulled out of the talks and demanded the president meet with GOP leadership to discuss the newest stalemate.
For all the public bluster, McConnell has said he was deeply concerned about what missing the debt default deadline would do to the country's ailing economy and to national and international markets.
The day after riding in a July Fourth parade in Campbellsville, Ky., he returned to the office in Washington, gathered his staff around and shared his idea. His plan would have Obama propose lifting the debt ceiling by roughly $2.5 trillion in three phases over the next two years. Obama would make a $700 billion request to Congress by Aug. 2.
Ironically, the McConnell plan would essentially allow a "clean" debt limit, one without any of the deficit reductions that had been discussed in the White House talks. Liberal Democrats have long urged a debt limit without such strings.
"It was brilliant," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report. "It put the responsibility in Obama's lap, it allowed the Republicans multiple opportunities to vote for cuts and it gave some moderate Democrats some cover. Everybody won."
McConnell unveiled the plan during a specially scheduled meeting with fellow Senate Republicans and made clear that he deemed a "big deal" with the White House by Aug. 2 highly unlikely. The lawmakers asked about the political ramifications. McConnell answered. Then, only when he was satisfied that most of the rank-and-file would support him — or at least not throw up too many roadblocks — did he head back to his leadership office.
McConnell called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to pitch his idea and waited.
In recent days, the White House has increasingly reiterated that while officials there hope for a broader deal to raise the debt ceiling, McConnell's proposal is "a fallback option — simply to get that done," spokesman Jay Carney told reporters last week.
"McConnell has a tendency to get to the end of the book before everyone else," Duffy said. "He sees all the moving parts and everything that comes together."
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