By Mike Lillis - 07/20/11 03:29 PM EDT
House Democratic leaders are attacking Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) debt-ceiling fallback plan, characterizing it as a political ruse intended to scapegoat Democrats and taint them at the polls.
“I’m not a fan of the McConnell proposal,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Tuesday during a press briefing in the Capitol. “It’s designed to protect mostly Republican members of Congress from taking responsibility for votes that they’ve already made.”
McConnell last week floated the proposal empowering President Obama to lift the debt ceiling — without congressional approval — on three occasions over the next year and a half.
The McConnell plan was intended to be a fallback for avoiding a default. But since lawmakers missed the president’s deadline for presenting a plan over the weekend, concerns have grown that Congress will not have enough time to negotiate and vote on a package by Aug. 2, when the Treasury Dept. projects the U.S. will default on its debt.
On Tuesday, the bipartisan Gang of Six senators released a $3.7 trillion deficit-reduction plan. The proposal was met with quick support from both Republican and Democratic senators. President Obama praised the proposal as “good news” and said it was “broadly consistent” with the approach he had urged in negotiations.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the Gang, to brief members of the New Democrats in the House about the plan Wednesday.
But even Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), a member of the Gang of Six, has conceded that the proposal cannot be turned into legislation and scored by the Congressional Budget Office by Aug. 2. Van Hollen on Wednesday joined Durbin in questioning whether there was enough time to implement the plan and suggested it could only be approved if the debt-ceiling were increased for a short period to give lawmakers more time to score and turn the Gang of Six plan into legislation.
The McConnell-Reid option will likely need to win Democratic support to make it through the House.
The proposal drew howls of criticism from many conservative groups that hoped the Republicans would use the must-pass debt-ceiling vote as leverage to exact trillions of dollars in federal spending cuts. The rebuke from the right almost certainly foreshadows a number of House Republican defections, likely leaving GOP leaders reliant on some Democrats to pass the bill.
House Democrats, however, are suspicious of McConnell’s motives.
“It’s somewhat clever of Mr. McConnell to, in effect, try to transfer all responsibility [for raising the debt limit] … to the president of the United States, solo,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the House Democratic whip, told reporters Tuesday.
Hoyer noted that McConnell is currently talking with Reid about tweaking the bill, perhaps to create commissions charged with crafting deficit-reduction strategies.
“The Senate has not passed anything yet, and I’m not going to anticipate what we’ll do [afterward],” Hoyer said.
Still, both Hoyer and Van Hollen suggested that the McConnell plan, as a fallback to a broader package, would have a difficult time finding Democratic support in the lower chamber.
“When the Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the presidency, they did not cut spending,” Hoyer said, referring to the first six years of the George W. Bush administration.
Soaring deficits “are the direct consequences of their acts,” Hoyer added, “and now they want to shift responsibility.”
Van Hollen was likewise quick to note the GOP’s contribution to the nation’s debt over the last decade, including the creation of Medicare’s prescription drug program, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and trillions of dollars in tax cuts championed by Bush.
None of those programs was offset by changes elsewhere in the budget, forcing the government to borrow funds to cover their costs.
Van Hollen said the McConnell plan allows supporters of those programs — particularly the Republicans who pushed them — “to hide from the consequences of their own votes.”
“Most Republicans who were in Congress during that period of time voted for all those things,” Van Hollen said. “And now they don’t want to take responsibility for paying the bills.”
The “only virtue [of the McConnell plan] is that it recognizes that the United States has to pay its bills to avoid an economic catastrophe,” Van Hollen added. “But it is not an adult moment.”
A number of rank-and-file Democrats also are critical of the McConnell debt-ceiling plan. Some have warned their leadership that it’s “a trap” designed to make Obama a one-term president by forcing him to absorb all the public blame for enacting an unpopular policy.
“We’re dealing with people who care first about making sure that President Obama is not reelected,” Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said last week.
Obama, for his part, suggested Tuesday that a McConnell/Reid compromise would be the most viable fallback plan if negotiators failed to reach a larger deal.
“That continues to be a necessary approach to put forward,” Obama said at a press briefing in the White House. “In the event that we don’t get an agreement, at minimum, we’ve got to raise the debt ceiling.”
Meanwhile, House Democrats are invoking Ronald Reagan in an effort to convince GOP leaders to move quickly on raising the debt limit. The former president, a paragon of fiscal responsibility to many conservatives, raised the debt ceiling 17 times during his presidency.
“The United States has a special responsibility to itself and the world to meet its obligations,” Reagan said in a 1987 radio address highlighted by Democrats on Tuesday. “It means we have a well-earned reputation for reliability and credibility — two things that set us apart from much of the world.”
This report was updated at 11:29 am