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The McConnell Plan's Pitfalls

12:00 AM, Jul 13, 2011 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Shortly after Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell unveiled his “contingency” plan for a debt limit increase, the Associated Press bulletin read: “GOP Leader McConnell proposes giving Obama new power for automatic debt limit increase.”

McConnell Mitch

It’s surely not the headline McConnell wanted, but unlike much of the media coverage of the debt fight, it’s accurate. And that’s a problem.

It is not, however, the main problem with the McConnell plan. Far worse, in my view, is that the plan isolates House Republicans, it undercuts their (tentative) plan to offer an aggressive debt limit proposal of their own, it turns their principled intransigence from a possible strength to a certain liability, and it virtually ensures that, in the event of default, Republicans – not the White House – will be blamed.

McConnell’s plan gives the president the ability to raise the debt ceiling through 2012, in three separate increments, by requiring Obama to propose spending cuts greater than each request. Its main virtue is that these hikes would have to pass largely with Democratic support – something that McConnell and others believe will redound to Republicans’ benefit heading into the 2012 election cycle. And, the theory goes, if President Obama offers phony spending cuts, as he almost certain to do, his posturing as the “adult in the room” on entitlements and spending will be exposed as unserious.

But there’s the catch, too: the spending cuts do not have to be real or even implemented in order for the president to get his debt ceiling increases. McConnell acknowledged this at the press conference to announce the plan Tuesday afternoon. ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked: “Does it guarantee you’ll get your spending cuts or not?” McConnell responded: “No, it doesn’t.”

That fact means the McConnell plan will be nearly impossible to get through the House of Representatives. “There is zero chances it’ll pass the House,” said one House leadership aide. “Zero. I’m not sure it would get any votes from our side.”

A second leadership aide agreed. “It won’t pass.”

If that’s true, and there are many reasons to believe that it is, the McConnell proposal sets up House Republicans – and only the House Republicans – to be the villains. Here’s why.

In the negotiations pre-McConnell plan, Republicans in both houses were united on the three big things: major spending cuts, entitlement reforms, and no new taxes. The fact that House Republicans had been elected to cut spending and reduce the size of government was an advantage. The White House had to understand that any proposal with new taxes or too few spending cuts stood the chance of being rejected by the House. And while the White House had the upper hand in messaging on blame – in part because of the threat of withholding Social Security checks, etc., and in part because of a sycophantic media – there was at least the possibility that the White House would have owned some of the failure to reach a compromise.

The chances the White House would have been blamed could well have increased if House Republicans had decided to move forward with their own aggressive proposal – in effect, daring Harry Reid and President Obama to choose to reject it. While this option was discussed at length, there were two main concerns: 1) an aggressive and specific plan puts Republicans once again on the record voting for things that can be easily demagogued by Democrats; and, 2) the opposition to voting to increase the debt limit in the House is strong enough that coming up with a plan that would pass the House and tempt Democrats would have been difficult, if not impossible. Had House Republicans been able to craft such a plan they would have forced a choice on Senate Democrats and the White House: austerity or default. In such a scenario, President Obama, having warned repeatedly about the catastrophic consequences of default, would have had to defend that choice if he refused to accept the House GOP plan. A high-risk strategy, to be sure, but one with at least the possibility of succeeding.

Not anymore.

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