House GOP passes ill-fated 'cut, cap, and balance' legislation

House Republicans on Tuesday approved an ambitious but legislatively ill-fated plan to enact deep spending restraints that could clear the decks for a compromise over the debt limit.

The so-called “cut, cap and balance” measure passed on a party-line vote, 234-190, as nine Republicans — including presidential candidates Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Ron Paul (Texas) — and five Democrats defected.

Democrats excoriated the GOP for advancing the bill, which the White House has threatened to veto.

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The vote came on a day when a new bipartisan Senate proposal shook up the debate over the debt limit, offering the possibility of a framework that could break the partisan stalemate over lifting the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling while reducing its long-term deficits.

House Republicans reacted hesitantly to the “Gang of Six” plan, saying they had yet to see the details and were focused on their own proposal, which conditions a $2.4 trillion increase in the debt ceiling on $111 billion in immediate cuts, an annual cap on spending, and congressional passage of a balanced-budget amendment.

Even as the GOP brought the “cut, cap and balance” legislation to the floor, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said party leaders in the lower chamber had begun discussions over a “Plan B” to increase the debt ceiling by the Treasury Department’s Aug. 2 deadline if a broad agreement wasn’t possible.

“I’m not going to give up hope on ‘cut, cap and balance,’ but I do think it’s responsible for us to look at what Plan B would look like,” Boehner said at a Capitol press conference following a closed-door GOP conference meeting. “And the leadership had a long conversation yesterday about Plan B. There are a lot of options available to us. There have been no decisions made as yet.”

The Speaker made no specific mention of a fallback plan gaining steam in the Senate, which would contain modest spending cuts and grant President Obama more authority to raise the debt ceiling through 2012. House Republicans said there was little discussion of that idea, offered by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), in the Tuesday conference meeting, but that Boehner had described it as a “final option.”

The challenge, both GOP leaders and rank-and-file members said, is to find a plan that can gain the 218 votes needed to pass the House. The vote on Tuesday was designed in part to demonstrate that an increase in the debt ceiling, loaded with spending cuts and reforms, could win the support of House conservatives. Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have said none of the plans the president has floated in White House meetings could pass the House.

“I think everybody’s looking for a plan on our side of the aisle that will cut more than the debt ceiling increases without raising tax rates,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), a deputy whip, said. “I think that’s kind of the core. Short of that I don’t see how you pass anything over here.”

With less than two weeks until a potential default, however, Republican leaders are grappling with the reality that a back-up plan could be necessary.

“You never say never, because I’m not one that believes we can drive this train off a cliff either and default on America’s debt,” Walden said in reference to the GOP’s strict demands. “I just don’t think that’s a responsible position.”

Whether the framework offered Tuesday by the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Six could satisfy the House GOP was far from clear.

“This plan shares many similarities with the framework the Speaker discussed with the president, but also appears to fall short in some important areas,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel, said. He added that the “cut, cap and balance” plan “remains our focus.”

Sources said that Republicans wanted more structural changes to Medicare and Medicaid than the Gang of Six plan proposes, along with more immediate budget savings and deeper overall tax cuts.

Other Republican lawmakers deferred comment on the Gang of Six plan because they hadn’t seen the details. “It sounds better than some alternatives, but I haven’t seen it,” Walden said when a reporter described its main features.

“I’m encouraged by anything that moves things forward,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee.

Democrats welcomed the plan, saying it fits their desire for a “grand bargain.” The 43-member House New Democrat Coalition discussed the proposal at a meeting Tuesday and its leadership later released a statement endorsing a “bipartisan, comprehensive deficit reduction proposal that combines spending cuts and revenue.”

Two House members, Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.), signed a letter urging Boehner to schedule a vote on the Gang of Six proposal.

House conservatives pressed Obama to release his own deficit-reduction plan in writing, and a group of freshman lawmakers took to the White House lawn to get the president’s attention. They pointed to the GOP’s “cut, cap and balance” legislation as evidence that Republicans were responsibly addressing the nation’s long-simmering debt crisis.

“We’ll look at anything,” freshman Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) said of Obama’s push for a “big deal.” “It’s a big deal with no details. There’s nothing specific. So that’s the biggest frustration we’ve got — it’s like we’re negotiating with ourselves again, where we’re putting ideas out but nothing’s coming back.”

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Democrats said the Republican strategy was anything but responsible. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) assailed the GOP for “fiddling with a bill that will not pass while the flames of default lick at our heels.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said the GOP was trying to “manipulate the Constitution” with “an anti-democratic provision” that would make it easier to end entitlement programs like Medicare than to close tax loopholes.

Democrats pledged to make the Tuesday vote a campaign issue, saying Republicans had doubled down on their budget proposal to overhaul Medicare, which polls have found to be unpopular. While the GOP “cut, cap and balance” plan does not detail Medicare cuts and exempts it from spending cuts, Democrats said the strict balanced-budget amendment would leave future Congresses with no choice but to slash benefits.

Republicans stood firm. One GOP freshman who voted against the party’s budget in April, Rep. David McKinley (W.Va.), said he was enthusiastically backing the “cut, cap and balance” plan because he had campaigned on a balanced-budget amendment.

“We’ve got to stop the spending. Period,” he said. He called comparisons between the debt ceiling plan and the budget resolution “preposterous.” “I see absolutely no connection between the two,” McKinley said.