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McConnell's last ditch debt ceiling plan: What's in it for Republicans?

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell proposes a 'last choice option' that would allow President Obama to raise the national debt ceiling without GOP support.

By Staff writer / July 12, 2011

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. McConnell offered a 'last choice option' that would allow President Obama to raise the national debt ceiling without GOP support.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Washington

In a surprise move, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday proposed a “last choice option” to avoid default on the national debt that would require the support of just over a third of the House and Senate to raise the national debt ceiling.

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The McConnell proposal, which requires special legislation to be adopted, gives the president expedited procedures to increase the debt limit by as much as $2.4 trillion that require only submission of a plan to reduce spending by a greater amount. There is no requirement that Congress actually pass those spending cuts.

But even if the cuts are never passed, the proposal has two political advantages for Republicans: It forces President Obama to lay out his proposed spending cuts in writing, a longtime GOP demand. And it absolves Republicans of responsibility for sending the nation into its first-ever default, as early as Aug. 2.

In exchange, Republicans give up all leverage on spending – riling many conservatives who elected a new GOP House majority to make tough decisions on spending, and diminishing Congress’s constitutional power of the purse.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) Nevada said at a press conference that he did not know much about the plan, but stated: "I am not about to trash his proposal. It's something that I will look at."

“It’s an admission by Mitch McConnell that the votes won’t be there on the GOP side to do anything. They’re looking for a way out,” says Stan Collender, a longtime congressional budget analyst and partner at Qorvis Communications in Washington. “It puts the onus for raising the debt limit directly on President Obama.”

With both sides in deeply entrenched positions – Republicans refusing tax increases and Democrats refusing deep spending or entitlement cuts without them – default on the national debt is an outcome that some congressional leaders are taking more seriously.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania proposed legislation requiring the Obama administration to come up with contingency plans to prioritize payments to avoid default after Aug. 2. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has proposed invoking an obscure clause in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution as a basis for giving the president unilateral authority to raise the debt limit. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph did not list the correct part of government documents to which the president could refer.]

McConnell’s proposed legislative mechanism gives the House and Senate the option to defeat the proposed increase in the debt ceiling with a joint resolution disapproving of the president’s request that has little chance of success.

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