Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s backup debt disapproval plan was certainly fodder for debate yesterday afternoon. But suspicion that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would be put out (or off) by the Senate Republican leader’s supplement to the main debt-ceiling talks was quickly dispelled. On a Fox News appearance, Boehner explained, “Everybody believes there needs to be a backup plan if we are unable to come to an agreement. I think Mitch has done good work.”
A Republican source familiar with the speaker’s thinking and the debt talk told me last night that discussions are still ongoing on a possible bipartisan deal. The source explained that, at the Tuesday afternoon White House meeting, “the speaker urged the president to show leadership and again asked that he present a score-able plan of his own that could pass the Congress. He reminded the president that Republicans asked the White House for such a proposal more than two months ago and have still not seen one. The speaker also urged the president and Democratic leaders to work with Republicans to pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution as a way to reinforce the restraints on future spending that will have to be in any agreement that passes Congress.”
Republican leaders, perhaps emboldened by ample polling showing the public opposes a hike in the debt ceiling, are doing all they can (given that they control only the House) to turn up the heat on the president.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board cautioned that McConnell’s plan shows the limits of Republicans’ power:
The hotter precincts of the blogosphere were calling this a sellout yesterday, though they might want to think before they shout. The debt ceiling is going to be increased one way or another, and the only question has been what if anything Republicans could get in return. If Mr. Obama insists on a tax increase, and Republicans won’t vote for one, then what’s the alternative to Mr. McConnell’s maneuver?
Republicans who say they can use the debt limit to force Democrats to agree to a balanced budget amendment are dreaming. Such an amendment won’t get the two-thirds vote to pass the Senate, but it would give every Democrat running for re-election next year a chance to vote for it and claim to be a fiscal conservative. . . .
The tea party/talk-radio expectations for what Republicans can accomplish over the debt-limit showdown have always been unrealistic. . . .
The entitlement state can’t be reformed by one house of Congress in one year against a determined President and Senate held by the other party. It requires more than one election. The Obama Democrats have staged a spending blowout to 24% of GDP and rising, and now they want to find a way to finance it to make it permanent. Those are the real stakes of 2012.
So the name of the game here for opponents of Obama’s ambition to ensconce an enlarged welfare state is to maximize Republicans’ limited power without causing an actual default crisis. Boehner and McConnell are cooperating on a pincer movement — stand firm in the bipartisan negotiations and threaten to force Obama come up with the cuts himself, in the event he won’t drop his demands for huge tax hikes and/or come up with meaningful immediate cuts. Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) hectors Obama to come forward with the specifics of his promised proposals to cut entitlement benefits. (“The president ‘says he’s willing to . . . raise the age of eligibility in Medicare [from 65 to 67], he’s talked about his desire to increase or adjust the inflator for Social Security, which would reduce benefits in the out years for retirees,’ Cantor told reporters after his keynote address. ‘If he’s willing to do that, let’s see it. Because he keeps talking about it, but it’s always a speech; we don’t have any indication of where the details are.’ ”)
Republican presidential contenders and back-benchers have the luxury of simply saying no to every attainable debt-ceiling increase option. That’s politics. Meanwhile, Boehner, McConnell and Cantor grind away, seeing if they can wear down the White House. If so, a not-very-grand bargain still may be in the offing. If not, there’s the backup plan.