Efforts to forge a compromise also confront a sharply divided Republican Party.
At issue are diverging assessments of the main risks facing the nation. McConnell has concluded that congressional politics make it impossible to reach a deal over taming the federal deficit in time to avoid a debilitating default.
So he is offering the White House an out, but one that requires Obama to take responsibility for the politically unpopular step of raising the debt ceiling. Under the proposal, a new legal structure would allow the president to increase the debt limit by as much as $2.5 trillion in three installments accompanied by congressional votes.
Cantor and his allies among conservative Republican freshmen remain less troubled by the prospect of default than by the amount of federal spending. Many of these House members came to Washington under the banner of reducing the size of government and are reluctant to surrender the leverage that the debt-limit debate gives them.
For more than six months, Cantor has told rank-and-file Republicans that they could force Obama to agree to deep spending cuts and changes in entitlement programs such as Medicare. Cantor, whose profile in negotiations has recently eclipsed that of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), has argued that raising the debt ceiling without significant and guaranteed spending cuts would surrender the party’s momentum coming out of the 2010 midterm elections.
After the White House meeting, Cantor said he no longer objected to McConnell’s suggestion of multiple votes on the debt limit even though the overall proposal remained unacceptable to the House. He added that Democrats have their own internal divisions, in particular over the size of potential spending cuts.
As the Republican argument continued, Reid was urging that the package he is developing with McConnell be shaped to win fast bipartisan approval in the Senate. Obama has neither embraced the idea nor dismissed it. In Wednesday’s meeting, he said his strong preference is not just to raise the debt ceiling but also to take significant steps to restrain borrowing.
Congressional Democrats like the McConnell approach because it could end the stalemate without forcing them to concede dramatic cuts to health-care and retirement programs that they have vowed to protect.
GOP senators are also embracing the idea. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) issued a statement offering his strong support, calling the proposal “a smart, forward-looking plan to make clear to all Americans that should we get to August 2nd without an agreement, it is President Obama alone — and not Republicans in Congress — who decides whether to raise the debt limit, and owns the economic consequences of any default.”
Other Republicans, emerging from a lunch meeting on the topic Wednesday, said they want to vote first on a proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to require Congress to balance the budget, a measure the House and the Senate are expected to take up next week. But if that measure fails in the Senate as expected, several GOP senators said they would support McConnell’s approach.
“It’s an option if nothing else works,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), who plans Monday to announce his own plan to save $9 trillion over the next decade. “Politically, it’s smart, even if policy-wise it doesn’t fix the country’s problems.”
On Wednesday, Democrats from both chambers met to discuss the strategy, which is still a work in progress. And although House Republican leaders are balking, some senior GOP lawmakers said it might help the caucus focus on a viable legislative path forward.
“I think it’s worth considering a Senate-first strategy on this,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (Mich.), whose committee is responsible for drafting debt-limit legislation. “It leaves the House with more options.”
Staff writers Zachary A. Goldfarb and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.