Democratic leaders in the House and Senate responded positively Wednesday to a “back-up plan” proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that would allow the debt ceiling to be raised, but would make President Obama and congressional Democrats bear the brunt of the political fallout.
“What Leader McConnell has put on the table recognizes that we must lift the debt ceiling; that we must do that,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters in her office Wednesday before meeting with a small group of young people on the debt-limit debate. “So it has that merit, in that it says, ‘What are we talking about here?’ We have to pass this, and let’s talk about the other things as we go along.’ ”
Pelosi said that while she has yet to receive the particulars of McConnell’s plan, “I do know that he has recognized that we must lift the debt ceiling.”
The top House Democrat’s remarks came shortly after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that McConnell’s proposal, “combined with ideas he and I have been discussing to force a vote on deficit reduction proposals, could go a long way toward resolving the impasse in which we find ourselves.”
“I am glad to hear that the Republican leader has come forward with a backstop proposal to address the debt limit,” Reid said Wednesday morning in remarks on the Senate floor. “I am still studying it and discussing it with senators, but I am heartened by what I read. This is a serious proposal. And I commend the Republican leader for coming forward.”
The praise from Reid and Pelosi on the McConnell plan is an indication that leaders are seriously considering the proposal as an option in case the debt-limit talks are not successful. But the plan also holds significant political peril for Democrats – if Congress and Obama were to approve the measure, it would allow the debt limit to be raised without the support of congressional Republicans.
The proposal also has risks for McConnell, who has been met with a barrage of criticism from conservative Republicans who argue that the plan would amount to an implicit agreement by the GOP to raise the borrowing limit.
On Wednesday, the Tea Party Patriots group issued a statement blasting McConnell's proposal.
“Mitch McConnell’s plan shows plainly he wants to abdicate any responsibility for fiscal matters to the president,” Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler said. “We send our representatives in Congress like Sen. McConnell to Washington to represent us and pass legislation that responds to the voters—not to pass the buck off to the Executive Branch.”
The top two leaders in each chamber are set to hold their fifth meeting at the White House Wednesday afternoon aimed at forging a way forward on the debt limit before an Aug. 2 deadline. After more than a week of relatively little action behind the scenes, negotiators first sat down with Obama and Vice President Biden Thursday in an effort to re-start the process.
But efforts at achieving a “grand bargain” broke down Saturday night with an announcement by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that such a deal was impossible due to Democrats’ insistence on including tax increases in a final deal.
Since then, the leaders have continued to meet but aides and participants in the talks have said that progress toward even a more-limited deal has been tenuous at best, with McConnell’s surprise announcement Tuesday of his “back-up plan” the latest twist in the process.
McConnell and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said that they were bringing up their last-ditch proposal as a way to ensure that the country would not default in case the White House-led negotiations prove fruitless.
Asked Wednesday whether she shared the pessimism of some members and observers of the talks, Pelosi struck an upbeat tone.
“I don’t see it that way,” Pelosi said in response to a question on whether chances of a deal were diminishing. “Perhaps to an inexperienced eye that may be the case, but what I see it as is the elimination of some possibilities, and that’s progress -- elimination of possibilities; narrowing the paths that we may go down.”
She also was effusive in praising Obama’s handling of the talks – notwithstanding the differences she and other House Democrats have had with the White House over the inclusion of entitlement cuts in any final deal.
“Let me say of the president how blessed we are to have him there. . . . This president has extended the respect and the courtesy to bipartisan House and Senate members to listen, listen, listen and listen to them talk about what their concerns are, their priorities; what their suggestions are,” Pelosi said. “Thursday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and now Wednesday. Unprecedented in terms of a president listening that much, bringing to the table complete knowledge of the subject. Nobody can out-debate him or out-statistic him on this information.”
The other Democrats sitting at the table with Pelosi – including Reps. Cedric Richmond (La.), Donna Edwards (Md.), Jared Polis (Colo.) and Tim Ryan (Ohio) – also defended Obama. Richmond, one of the handful of Democratic freshmen in the House, dismissed charges from Republicans that Obama had issued “veiled threats” Tuesday when he said in an interview with CBS News that he could not guarantee that seniors would continue to receive their Social Security checks if the debt limit is not raised by Aug. 2.
“The fact that that comes up in the conversation is not demagoguing; it’s just a realistic assessment of the sinful ramifications of an irresponsible proposal,” Richmond said.
This post has been updated since it was first published.