The Kentucky Crying Turtle, Mitch McConnell

The Kentucky Crying Turtle, Mitch McConnell by DonkeyHote

Remember when I said that Mitch McConnell appeared to endorse a clean debt limit bill? Well, now he’s out with a very odd proposal that would attempt to force Democrats into a trio of uncomfortable votes:

Trying to get out of the political box which they have helped to create, Senate Republicans are actively discussing a new plan under which the debt ceiling would grow in three increments over the remainder of this Congress unless lawmakers approve a veto proof resolution of disapproval.

In effect lawmakers would be surrendering the very power of approval that the GOP has used to force the crisis now. But by taking the disapproval route, Republicans can shift the onus more onto the White House and Democrats since a two-thirds majority will be needed to stop any increase that President Barack Obama requests.

How the new approach will sit with House Republicans is unclear. But at this stage it offers an escape valve for those in the GOP who fear that if the current crisis persists they will be forced to accept some tax revenue increases as part of any settlement.

An internal Senate GOP memo describes the plan as modeled on the Congressional Review Act of the 90’s under which Congress may block or over-turn an agency’s rules by adopting a joint resolution of disapproval –subject to a presidential veto.

Maybe it’s the quality of the writing on this article, but I’m at a loss to untangle it. Apparently McConnell wants to create a process where the Congress allows a debt limit vote in tranches, with three votes over the next year-plus, through the 2012 elections. And it would allow all the votes to come from Democrats, because they would simply be upholding a Presidential veto of something like a resolution of disapproval for increasing the debt limit. This is essentially a license for the Administration to increase the debt limit by themselves, with little constraint except a destined-to-fail 2/3 vote.

But then there’s this weird line about the President being “required to propose offsetting savings” as part of the deal, which could refer to impoundments or a line-item veto or I don’t know what. I’m trying to get my hands on the internal memo, although Mitch McConnell doesn’t really call or write me on a regular basis. McConnell has scheduled a press conference to discuss the proposal.

Understand that this is where McConnell’s been at the entire time. He isn’t really all that concerned with the debt limit, and thinks he has other options to force spending reductions, especially if he can keep taxes low. The 2012 budget is a perfect example. So this is a Rube Goldberg mechanism to achieve McConnell’s goals. Basically, his only concern is that Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill and Ben Nelson and Joe Manchin have to vote to increase the debt limit. McConnell has never used the word “filibuster” in relation to the debt limit. He just wants Democrats to carry the load entirely. In other words, he wants what every Senate Minority Leader has wanted on the debt limit since time immemorial: putting the entire responsibility on the majority. Republicans could freely vote against the increase and accuse Democrats of racking up debt. And since the President would be the prime mover in this, it fits with McConnell’s other main goal of making Obama a one-term President, since he would have no cover on increasing the debt limit.

Now, I cannot name for you one single solitary member of Congress who lost his or her seat because they voted to increase the debt limit. So McConnell may consider this tactically brilliant, but Democrats would be fine to call his bluff. What’s more, it would keep alive the many charges they could level at Republicans in 2012, like voting to end Medicare. The way I think it’s structured, you wouldn’t even necessarily need the aforementioned Tester and Nelson and McCaskill and Manchin to vote to uphold the Presidential veto; you’d just need 34 Democrats.

John Boehner said today that raising the debt limit was “Obama’s problem.” McConnell’s plan would affirm that.

UPDATE: Boehner admitted in a House caucus meeting today that his party will quickly lose leverage in the debt limit fight. I believe they may have already, with the McConnell plan (depending on the details, which I can’t make out right now).

UPDATE II: So McConnell had his press conference, and this is a little more clear.

The plan is designed to give President Obama the power to raise the debt limit through the end of his first term on his own, but to force Democrats to take a series of votes on the debt limit vote in the months leading up to the election [...]

The plan would require Congress to pass a bill allowing Obama to raise the debt limit on his own contingent on him taking a series of steps: Obama would have to notify Congress of his intent tor raise the debt limit — a high-sign to Congress that would be subject to an official censure known as a “resolution of disapproval,” and which Obama could veto. If he vetoed the resolution, and if Congress sustained the veto, then Obama would also have to outline a series of hypothetical spending cuts he’d make, equal to the amount of new debt authority he gives himself.

McConnell proposes extending this process in three tranches, to force Obama to request more borrowing authority, and to force debt limit votes in Congress, repeatedly through election season.

So there would be a bill allowing this President (any President? Is this the end of the debt limit?) to raise the debt limit on his own. Then there’s this tack on if the resolution of disapproval process fails, which is hilarious. The President would have to write out a series of spending cuts equal to the debt limit increase. They wouldn’t have the force of law, they would just be a series of line items that the opposition could use in elections (“The President proposed cutting your X!”). This is the most transparently political idea I’ve ever seen. But McConnell is a political animal. And the right is already flipping out about this idea.

UPDATE III: This is getting hilarious. From John Boehner, who is at least backing the spirit of McConnell’s proposal:

The Speaker shares the Leader’s frustration. Republicans are unified in our commitment to ensuring that the debt limit is not used as leverage to saddle small businesses with increased taxes that destroy jobs.

They’ve done a total 360, from playing hostage-taker to victim.

UPDATE IV: Based on this summary from McConnell’s office, it appears that the President would have to write down a plan for spending cuts right away, but they would not be enacted alongside an increase in the debt limit. They would be hypothetical. Rich Lowry says the House reaction is dim to this proposal.