Mitch McConnell’s plan, as Eric Cantor and Jim DeMint said tonight, is “going nowhere.” Which is where it deserved to go. It was too clever by half, transparently cynical, probably unconstitutional, and Rube Goldberg-like in its incomprehensibility.
But even if it created a bad news day yesterday for Republicans, the good news is that it’s already yesterday’s news.
It’s House Republicans—not Senate minority leader McConnell—who will control tomorrow’s news. Here’s what they can do, and what I think they will in broad outlines do, over the next few days and weeks.
First, they can pass legislation prioritizing federal spending in the case of limits imposed by the debt ceiling, protecting Social Security recipients, and the military, for starters.
Then they have three paths (which aren’t mutually exclusive, and could be approached all at once or sequentially).
Plan A: They pass their optimal version of a debt ceiling increase—some version of the Cut/Cap/Balance proposal, with major domestic discretionary and entitlement spending cuts, spending caps, and at least a vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Voting for this, like passing the Ryan budget, puts House Republicans in the position of claiming to have a serious and comprehensive governing plan.
Plan B: The House (also?) passes a short-term debt ceiling increase of “only” several hundred billion dollars, accompanied by several hundred billion dollars of domestic discretionary cuts. These cuts would simply be an updated version of the $100 billion or so in spending cuts they passed earlier this year in their first version of the FY2011 continuing resolution, which were mostly compromised away in bargaining with the Senate and the White House. House Republicans have already voted for those cuts once, there’s no reason not to vote for them again, and they give Senate Democrats and the president a second alternative to deal with.
Plan C: The problem with both Plans A and B is that they do involve voting for an increase in the debt limit, which many House Republicans don’t want to do in the first place. Some of them will argue that, since Democrats won’t accept either Plans A and B, House Republicans would simply end up back in the bargaining business, with an unreliable Senate partner, and with the prospect of either having to vote eventually for a less palatable alternative, or having to vote against inferior debt limit legislation after having voted for their version of a debt ceiling increase, which might be hard to explain (or not?). So why, some of them will say, ever vote for any debt ceiling increase at all? What's in it for Republicans to be part of any process whose ultimate effect will be to authorize the federal government, under the management of President Obama, to plunge the nation ever deeper and more dangerously into debt?
One could answer that voters did send House Republicans to Washington to at least try to govern responsibly, and that Plans A and B embody such an effort. And that in voting for the Ryan budget, the House GOP has in effect voted to raise the debt ceiling. But that leads us to Plan C, which could either stand alone (i.e., one could skip Plans A and B) or be a follow-on to Plans A and B if they fail. Plan C would be pursued when and if House Republicans judge that the debt ceiling does, at the end of the day, have to be raised—if they do come to that determination. In that case, House Republicans would of course continue to make clear they will not entertain any debt ceiling increase that includes tax hikes or irresponsible defense cuts. But House Republicans could permit a debt ceiling hike without tax hikes and irresponsible defense cuts if such legislation were to pass. No Republican would need to vote yes. Republicans would take the position that the president says the debt ceiling must be raised. Fine. Let him raise it—with only Democratic votes.
That's easy in the Senate, where the GOP is in the minority. The 47 Senate Republicans would just vote no, and a few of them would agree not to filibuster the Democrats’ debt hike, so as not to obstruct the president and the Democrats. Nor need the Republican-controlled House stand in the way of the desire of the president and Democrats to incur more debt. House Republicans could allow Democrats to pass a no-tax-hike, no-gutting-of-defense version of a debt ceiling hike in the House. Speaker Boehner would have to round up (if I've done the math correctly) 48 Republican members who would agree to vote present on such a debt limit increase. The other 192 GOP members would vote no. The 193 Democrats would be welcome to vote yes and to pass the bill.
Such a measure wouldn’t do any policy damage, and it might even have some modest spending cuts. Obama and the Democrats would be unambiguously responsible for heaping two trillion dollars more debt on the American public—following on their unambiguous responsibility for the failed stimulus and for Obamacare. Republicans would be ready to make the case for the next year and a half for why Obama, and the Democrats, have to go.
There are of course many permutations and variations of a strategy like this for Republicans House, and I’m sure these approaches can be improved on. The ball is in the House Republicans’ court.