With 20 days to go, a ‘last-chance option’

President Obama, Vice President Biden, and the top eight congressional leaders continue to meet literally every day in the hopes of striking a debt-reduction deal, and yesterday’s talks lasted two hours. How much headway was made yesterday? By all accounts, none.

We’re now 20 days from August 2, the point at which the United States will exhaust its ability to pay its bills, and the fundamental dynamic has not, cannot, and probably will not change: Democrats are seeking a compromise with spending cuts and new revenue; Republicans won’t compromise and expect Dems to meet 100% of the GOP’s demands. Or else.

Enter Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) new proposal, which he called a “last-choice option.” The byzantine process would work like this:

…First, Obama would submit a request for a $700 billion increase in the debt ceiling, along with a nonbinding proposal to cut spending. That would automatically trigger a $100 billion increase in the debt ceiling to give Congress time to consider the request. Congress could then vote to either approve or disapprove of the president’s request. If they disapprove of it, however, Obama could veto their disapproval, and unless two-thirds of both chambers voted to overturn his veto — a virtually unthinkable outcome given that Democrats control the Senate — he could raise the debt ceiling anyway.

The same thing would happen, albeit in $900 billion increments rather than $700 billion increments, in fall 2011 and summer 2012. Take it all together, and Republicans would almost completely forfeit their leverage over the debt ceiling. In return, they’d get to make Democrats vote repeatedly to first raise the debt ceiling and then to “approve” of raising the debt ceiling. As Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said, this “gives the president 100 percent of the responsibility.” Or, to put it differently, 100 percent of the blame.

How many cuts would this process guarantee? None. The parties would go back to fighting over spending through the appropriations process, which would “only” lead to government shutdowns, instead of an economic collapse. Rather, McConnell’s effort is about politics — it would give Republicans the upper hand when it comes to whining, on three separate occasions, about Democrats doing the right-but-unpopular thing.

McConnell wouldn’t lower the deficit, but he would get the chance to complain an awful lot about Obama using the power that McConnell is eager to give him.

The plan is childish, petty, and more than a little pathetic, but as it happens, those adjectives describe congressional Republicans rather well, too.

The next question is whether such a proposal has any credible shot at being adopted. Senate Democrats have “privately embraced the idea,” seeing it as a viable way to circumvent the GOP-created crisis. The White House still prefers to strike an actual debt-reduction deal, but sees McConnell’s plan as a viable fall-back option. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) seemed quite pleased with the Senate Minority Leader’s proposal, which under normal circumstances, would mean a great deal.

But these aren’t normal circumstances. By all accounts, House Republicans, and even several far-right GOP senators, hate McConnell’s proposal, and won’t even consider supporting it.

We’re looking at the very real possibility that the top two Republicans in Congress — the Senate Minority Leader and the Speaker of the House — have no meaningful influence over how their caucuses resolve a crisis of their own making.