McConnell debt plan gets some cautious support from state delegation

WASHINGTON–It’s a rare moment–maybe even exceptional–when Rep. Joe Courtney finds himself lining up behind Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, a bedrock Kentucky conservative.

But that’s how odd the politics are getting in Washington these days, as lawmakers grope for a way to break the gridlock over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.

Courtney, a Democrat from Connecticut’s 2nd District, said he was “actually pretty impressed” with McConnell’s plan, which he called “serious” and a clear recognition of “how dangerous the country’s position is if this thing doesn’t get resolved.”

Sure, McConnell’s proposal puts all the onus of increasing the nation’s borrowing capacity, a politically toxic move, on President Barack Obama. And it lets Republicans off the hook on that count. But the proposal would also take Social Security and Medicare off the table, along with a bevy of domestic spending cuts that would likely be politically unpalatable to Democrats like Courtney.

“It’s about as clean a debt limit increase as has been proposed in months,” Courtney said.

Courtney isn’t the only Connecticut Democrat signaling support for McConnell’s somewhat convoluted and still-fluid proposal. The Republican Senate leader has pitched his plan as a fall-back option, in case the current budget-and-debt negotiations between congressional leaders and the White House collapse. That seems increasingly likely, since a series of tense talks at the White House this week produced hardened rhetoric and not much else.

Obama has been pushing for a “grand bargain” that would reduce the nation’s debt by about $4 trillion over the next decade through a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. He has offered to make controversial changes in Social Security and Medicare, two cherished but expensive entitlement programs, if Republicans would agree to some tax hikes. But the GOP has balked, saying that any tax increases are unacceptable.

Republicans have linked the negotiations to a pending increase in the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. U.S. Treasury officials have said Congress has until Aug. 2 to increase the country’s borrowing capacity–or risk letting the U.S. default on its obligations, a move many experts say would be catastrophic for the domestic and global economy.

As the talks have stalled, some-most notably McConnell-have begun to worry about the political fall-out of missing the Aug. 2 deadline. This McConnell’s escape hatch, which appears to be gaining steam.

It would work like this: Congress would pass legislation giving the president authority to request an increase in the debt ceiling in three installments, all before the 2012 November election and all in time to avoid a default on U.S. obligations. The White House would have to include a list of cuts that equal or surpass the amount of the debt-ceiling hike request.

For example, McConnell set the first installment at $700 billion, so in asking for that level of debt-ceiling increase, Obama would also have to send a list of at least $700 billion in proposed cuts.

In response, Republicans in Congress could file a “resolution of disapproval.” If that fails, Obama could raise the debt ceiling. If it passes, Obama could veto it–and still raise the debt ceiling.

And the accompanying set of proposed spending cuts? Congress and the president alike would be free to ignore them, if they want.

“There’s no question it has a bit of Washington politics swirling through it,” Courtney said of McConnell’s proposal.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said it has a lot of Washington politics swirling through it. It “gives Republicans all kinds of political cover,” he said. By shifting the decision to Obama, “They basically say ‘It’s your problem, leave us out of it’… It’s designed to give them a club with which to beat the president.”

That said, Himes isn’t ruling it out. “McConnell’s plan isn’t anywhere close to my preference,” he said. But “it gives us a path to getting past this ridiculous debt ceiling debate.”

Himes said his main goal right now is just that-raising the debt ceiling without roiling the markets and damaging the economy. “I’m not going to be overly critical of un-devastating ways of getting there,” he said.

Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, had a similar take. “The McConnell proposal isn’t perfect, but if it gets us through this crisis, it’s ten times better than lurching the country into default,” Murphy said. “In a vacuum, I don’t support McConnell’s proposal, but I worry the Republicans total intransigence is leaving us with few options other than McConnell’s proposal.”

Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said the Senate GOP leader’s plan is “all about politics.” He said he couldn’t support the plan as McConnell first outlined it, but he hopes a revised version might be more palatable. “It’s an ability to start the process in the Senate,” Larson said.

One of Larson’s main concerns? The three debt-ceiling votes that lawmakers would have to take between now and November 2012. “Why do we need three tranches?” Larson asked, a tacit acknowledgement of just how painful it would be for House Democrats to be put on the debt-ceiling spot three times before Election Day, instead of just one.

Said Himes: “Three votes on the debt ceiling before the election is a very bad outcome. It’s not as a bad as failing to raise the debt ceiling on Aug. 2 and going into a situation of default or near default. That’s cataclysmic.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been talking privately with McConnell about possible tweaks to his debt-ceiling plan.

“There’s been some suggestions about adding to it,” said McConnell’s spokesman, Don Stewart. “The details aren’t locked down.”

One proposal, for example, is to add a provision that would create a commission to propose spending cuts, which Congress would have to vote in a fast-track process that bars amendments.

Connecticut’s two U.S. senators seemed more wary of being pinned down on the framework.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he wouldn’t comment on McConnell’s plan because it’s a moving target. “It’s literally changing hourly,” he said, adding that he’d heard three different versions between 4 and 5 pm on Thursday.

“I’m still hopeful for an agreement that addresses the fundamental fiscal challenges,” Blumenthal said. “My preference is we do the right thing and reach a responsible agreement that reduces spending and raises revenues.”

When pressed, Blumenthal said he was not going to comment on “the worst-case options.” He refused to say whether he put McConnell’s plan in that category.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent and an advocate for a sweeping debt-reduction deal, said through his spokeswoman that he agrees with McConnell that defaulting on the nation’s debt needs to be avoided. But “he believes that it is essential to take strong measures to bring our fiscal house in order and hopes that the negotiations between the White House and Congressional leaders will lead to such an agreement.”