McConnell’s ‘contingency plan’

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was on “Fox News Sunday” over the weekend, and guest host Bret Baier asked what happens if debt-reduction talks fail. McConnell largely dodged the question, saying he’d have “more to say about that” later.

Baier followed up, asking “Is there a contingency plan?” McConnell replied, “There’s always a contingency plan.” Asked what such a plan might look like, the senator added, “I’ll let you know.”

Well, apparently he’s letting us know.

Desperate to get out of the political box they helped to create, Senate Republicans are actively pursuing 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 debt 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 this will sit with House Republicans is unclear. But it offers an escape valve for those in the Senate GOP who fear that if the current crisis persists they will be forced to accept some tax revenue increases as part of any settlement.

So, what does this mean, exactly? It struck me as a bad sign that I asked a few folks on the Hill to help walk me through this, and their explanations were far from identical.

As best as I can tell, McConnell’s proposed scenario, which would avoid default, is an elaborate scheme to pass the buck. President Obama could raise the debt ceiling, effectively on his own, with McConnell setting up a series of votes going into the 2012 election intended to put Democratic lawmakers on the spot. (McConnell’s top goal, other than defeating the president, is becoming Majority Leader in the next Congress. If he can make vulnerable Dems cast awkward votes, McConnell will do this as often as humanly possible.)

Brian Beutler unwraps the proposed solution.

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 to 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. […]

The legislation would not give Obama unilateral authority to cut spending or reduce deficits. And as such, it represents a big policy cave by Republicans, who’ve long insisted that they will not raise the debt limit without enacting entitlement cuts, long-sought by the conservative movement, on a bipartisan basis. But, if Dems buy into this option, it will keep the potent debt issue alive, and central to politics, for much of this election season.

Garance Franke-Ruta described this as “one of the clearest statements of legislative cowardice I’ve ever seen.”

The right, meanwhile, doesn’t seem fond of the idea — Erick Erickson is equated McConnell with “Pontius Pilate” and said it’s time to “burn” the Senate Minority Leader “in effigy.”