McConnell’s gambit splits both parties

A curveball from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell: Trump 'on to something' with attacks on Dem congresswomen Dems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Senate passes bill making hacking voting systems a federal crime MORE (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.

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McConnell on Wednesday said the Republican brand would be destroyed by a debt default, claiming it would clinch a second term for President Obama.

“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 CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Worries grow about political violence as midterms approach President Trump’s war on federal waste American patients face too many hurdles in regard to health-care access MORE (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 AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke Republicans make U-turn on health care Trump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid MORE (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 CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (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 PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulFirst responder calls senators blocking 9/11 victim funding 'a--holes' The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Jon Stewart rips into Rand Paul after he blocks 9/11 victim compensation fund: 'An abomination' MORE (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 LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeFirst responder calls senators blocking 9/11 victim funding 'a--holes' Jon Stewart rips into Rand Paul after he blocks 9/11 victim compensation fund: 'An abomination' Senate approves long-delayed tax treaties in win for business MORE (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 ReidHarry Mason ReidDems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Webb: Questions for Robert Mueller Steyer's impeachment solution is dead wrong MORE (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 SandersBernie Sanders2020 Democrats react to 'send her back' chants at Trump rally Cardi B posts message of support for Ilhan Omar #IStandWithIlhan trends after crowd at Trump rally chants 'send her back' MORE (I-Vt.), a member of the Budget Committee, said there were “pros and cons” to the proposal. 

Sen. Mark BegichMark Peter BegichAlaska political mess has legislators divided over meeting place Former GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Lobbying world MORE (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 ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump averages highest approval rating of his presidency in second quarter: Gallup The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations MORE 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 BachmannMichele Marie BachmannKlobuchar urges CNN town hall audience: 'That's when you guys are supposed to cheer, OK?' Michele Bachmann praises Trump: Americans will 'never see a more godly, biblical president' Will Biden lead a 'return to normalcy' in 2020? MORE (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.