All eyes turn to McConnell’s Plan B

After a tense discussion on Wednesday, White House and congressional leaders reconvened yesterday for another 80 minutes of talks. The negotiations were less confrontational — Eric Cantor literally didn’t say a word — but no more productive. By the end of the session, President Obama told lawmakers to talk to their caucuses and each other to “figure out what can get done” over the next 36 hours.

And at this point, “what can get done” appears to be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) fall-back plan, which folks are now calling “Plan B.”

Putting aside, for now, the byzantine procedural steps, McConnell’s plan would empower Obama to raise the debt ceiling on his own, while suggesting possible budget cuts, which Congress could then ignore. This plan, unveiled Tuesday, has been described as “Clean McConnell” because it’s a stripped down, straightforward plan.

As of yesterday, McConnell was in direct talks with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and the two appeared to be working on details that would make the plan far less clean.

Details of the Senate approach were sketchy…. Reid confirmed, however, that discussions are focused on what McConnell has called “Plan B”: an elaborate legal framework to raise the debt limit by $2.5 trillion that would place the entire political burden for the unpopular move on Obama.

Unveiled earlier this week, McConnell’s plan included no mechanism to force the sharp spending cuts that Republicans have demanded in exchange for voting to lift the debt limit. But in a sign of the unusual political times, Democrats said they were reluctant to go along with that proposal and are pressing to add roughly $1.5 trillion in cuts to government agencies to the measure.

Now, it seemed odd that McConnell would unveil a plan Dems could support, only to have Harry Reid make it deliberately worse. As I understand it, though, Reid is principally concerned with crafting an agreement that can pass. The odds of “Clean McConnell” quickly passing the House are awful, so the Reid/McConnell discussions are about threading the partisan needle.

And what about Dems, who aren’t likely to approve of a Plan B that includes $1.5 trillion in cuts but nothing in the way of new revenue? Rumor has it the plan will include a few sweeteners for the left, including a possible extension of unemployment benefits, while shielding entitlements from the list of cuts.

It’s easy to imagine Plan B gathering some momentum very quickly today. Indeed, if there’s a solid bipartisan Senate majority on board with its details, the White House signals its grudging support, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) gives it his seal of approval (as appears likely), the plan would start to look like the life-preserver Washington has been waiting for.

But that doesn’t answer questions about the radicalized House Republican caucus, much of which doesn’t consider drowning to be dangerous. They’d get $1.5 trillion in cuts and the opportunity to whine incessantly about the Obama White House raising the debt limit, while saying they were able to kill “Clean McConnell,” which the GOP base finds offensive. Whether that’s enough will come into focus over the next 36 hours.