By Alexander Bolton - 07/14/11 01:01 AM EDT
A curveball from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has split Republicans and Democrats over what to do about the nation’s debt limit.
Congressional Republicans argued over the plan while Democrats both praised and criticized it.
“Not on my watch,” McConnell said on Laura Ingraham's radio show.
The mixed reactions to McConnell’s plan came as Moody’s Investors Service warned that there was a “rising possibility” that the debt limit might not be raised in time, which has led the company to consider downgrading the U.S.’s triple-A credit rating.
Senate Democratic leaders are exploring ways to modify the McConnell plan to make it easier for wavering colleagues to support it, a senior Democratic aide said.
One option is to attach a package of spending cuts to the legislation so Congress would not give ultimate debt-limit authority to the president without insisting on savings up front.
Another idea is to establish a special bipartisan committee to craft a deficit-reduction package that would later come straight to the floor for a vote.
Meanwhile, the so-called Gang of Six (now with only five members) met Wednesday night on Capitol Hill. The former sixth member, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who did not attend the meeting, told reporters he may rejoin the bipartisan group, which has struggled to find a consensus on how to attack the deficit.
The McConnell proposal has sparked intra-party battles on Capitol Hill and highlighted a divide between business leaders — who are urging Congress to raise the debt-ceiling — and the Tea Party.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) on Wednesday spoke up at a private lunch in defense of McConnell’s plan, urging his colleagues to rally behind it.
He reasoned that Republicans could revisit spending cuts and entitlement reforms after the 2012 election, when they might control the Senate and White House, according to a lawmaker who attended the meeting.
Sen. Bob Corker (R), a fellow Tennessean, stood up to deliver an impassioned pummeling of Alexander’s argument.
Corker told colleagues he wasn’t elected to postpone action on deficit spending until the next election. Corker grew emotional and appeared to choke up, according to a lawmaker who witnessed the exchange.
An aide to Alexander declined to comment on the flare-up, saying: “There is no better relationship between senators than between Alexander and Corker.”
Laura Herzog, a Corker aide, said, “Senator Corker couldn’t serve with anyone he likes or respects more than Senator Alexander. Any pointed comments Senator Corker made today weren’t directed at any one person, but at the Senate as a whole.”
Senate GOP leaders such as Alexander and Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) have stood with McConnell, but other Senate conservatives are leery of his plan. A few, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), held their fire Wednesday, but others didn’t.
“Republicans were elected last November to get control of the spending, borrowing and debt,” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, told reporters. “The last thing we should do is make it easier to spend and borrow money.”
McConnell has proposed legislation that would authorize Obama to request a $2.5 trillion increase in the debt limit that would be made in three tranches. Congress could block those requests only by passing a resolution of disapproval.
The practical effect would be to give Obama nearly sole authority because he could veto a disapproval resolution. The veto would require two-thirds votes in both chambers to be overridden.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), another member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus who is teaming up with DeMint and others to pass a balanced-budget amendment, said he didn’t support McConnell’s plan.
“I’ve said all along that I will oppose efforts to raise the debt limit that don’t satisfy the criteria I’ve outlined. This doesn’t meet those,” Lee told reporters Wednesday.
“I understand the arguments the leader has made; I respect the leader; I respectfully disagree with this approach,” he added.
Senate Republicans need the votes of at least 20 Democrats to amend the Constitution, and Lee said McConnell’s plan signals to Democrats that Republicans are willing to let the debt limit rise without demanding the balanced-budget amendment.
Democrats also are conflicted over how to handle McConnell’s plan.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday that he was “heartened” by McConnell’s blueprint and commended the Kentucky Republican for offering it.
But several Democrats voiced concerns.
“The McConnell plan does nothing about the debt! How can that be?” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who Monday announced a plan that would cut $4 trillion from the deficit over the next decade.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) also criticized McConnell’s plan, saying on Bill Press’s radio show that it “punts the ball down the road.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stopped short of endorsing the proposal, but said it had “merit.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a member of the Budget Committee, said there were “pros and cons” to the proposal.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), also a committee member, said he was uncomfortable about heaping all the responsibility — and expected political blame — on Obama.
“To say it’s only the president’s problem is irresponsible,” Begich said. “Did the people who have been here for 10 years suddenly get amnesia? They helped drive up the deficit. This is everybody’s problem — the president’s and Congress’s.”
During his appearance on Ingraham’s show, McConnell said, “If we go into default, [the president] will say that Republicans are making the economy worse ... The president will have the bully pulpit to blame the Republicans for all of this destruction.”
He added, “I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy.”
Tea Party legislators in the House are giving McConnell’s proposal a thumbs-down.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) distanced herself from it, saying, “I’ve been here long enough that I’ve seen a lot of smoke and mirrors … ”
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an ally of Bachmann’s, said he’s “really apprehensive” about McConnell’s proposal.
“I just think that’s the fox in the henhouse,” he said.
A person familiar with a meeting that took place between Obama and congressional leaders Tuesday afternoon at the White House said they neither endorsed nor dismissed McConnell’s contingency plan.
White House officials on Wednesday pushed instead for a far-reaching compromise that would reduce the deficit by $3 trillion to $4 trillion over the next 10 years.
“Bigger is better,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said at his daily briefing. “It’s an opportunity for a game-changer.”
In its statement Wednesday afternoon, Moody’s did not directly comment on McConnell’s plan. But the credit-rating agency suggested it was not fond of the proposal.
It stated that the U.S. credit rating would be downgraded unless a “substantial and credible agreement is achieved on a budget that includes long-term deficit reduction.”
Alicia M. Cohn, Molly K. Hooper, Peter Schroeder and Sam Youngman contributed to this report.