Dueling debt-ceiling plans: Can either pass Congress?

House Republicans and Senate Democrats introduced their plans to resolve the debt-ceiling impasse before Aug. 2. But bipartisan hopes appear thin.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House majority meader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington Monday to criticize President Obama and congressional Democrats for their debt-ceiling plans. (AP Photo/)

With eight days before the US loses its authority to borrow funds, House and Senate leaders launched dueling plans to resolve the crisis.

Both deliberately avoid calls to raise taxes – a nonstarter for Republicans that derailed previous bids at a solution. But neither plan can yet claim a clear or even likely path to a bipartisan majority.

“What they have in common is that neither one is likely to pass – even its own house,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “Here’s a case where you really do need a bipartisan agreement, and there’s no bipartisanship left.

The Republican plan

The House Republican plan, introduced on Monday by Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, promises $3 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years, spending caps, and the promise of a vote on a balanced-budget amendment. It’s a softer version of the "cut, cap, and balance" plan that passed the House on a near party-line vote July 19 but went nowhere in the Senate.

The plan also provides an expedited track for the president to request a hike in the debt limit to be implemented in two stages. A first step calls for Congress to pass $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, allowing the president to request a $1 trillion hike in the debt ceiling. The request would be deemed passed unless Congress votes a resolution of disapproval – a procedure first proposed by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

This expedited procedure allows Congress to raise the debt limit with only a third plus one votes in either the House or Senate, the threshold for sustaining a presidential veto – saving many lawmakers a difficult, but necessary vote.

The next stage empowers a new legislative commission – six Republicans and eight Democrats – to find an additional $1.8 trillion in spending cuts, that would include cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which is a nonstarter for Democrats. If passed, this second-stage vote also opens the door to a presidential request to raise the debt ceiling through 2012, also on a fast track.

Finally, the GOP plan requires a vote in both the House and Senate on a balanced-budget amendment to the US Constitution. The House GOP’s cut, cap, and balance measure set a higher threshold – requiring that Congress pass a balanced budget amendment and send it on to the states for ratification.

“While I thank the Speaker for fighting for Republican principles, I cannot support the plan that was presented to House Republicans this afternoon,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R) of Ohio, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, the conservative wing of the Republican caucus.

“The credit rating agencies have been clear that no matter what happens with the debt limit, the US will lose its AAA credit rating unless we produce a credible plan to reduce the debt by trillions of dollars,” he added, in a statement. “Cut, cap, and balance is the only plan on the table that meets this standard.”

The Democratic plan

The Senate plan, unveiled Monday by Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, aims to cut $2.7 trillion in spending over 10 years and to increase the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion through 2012 in a single vote. Spending cuts include $1.2 trillion from domestic discretionary programs and $1 trillion in savings from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senator Reid says that the plan was deliberately framed to include only elements that Republicans have agreed to in the past, such as no tax increases and one-for-one offsets between spending cuts and debt-ceiling increases.

“So now, all the Republicans have to do is say, 'yes,' ” Reid said at a press briefing unveiling the plan. “Unfortunately, the Republicans who used to run the Congress on the – their two Republican caucuses are being driven by the radical right wing that is so in tune with the tea party.”

Republicans balk at the inclusion of $1 trillion of war costs that Congress had already committed to cut – jeopardizing the 60 votes needed to pass the measure in the Senate. At the same time, some liberals balked at the omission of tax hikes for the wealthy in the Democrat plan.

“While we applaud Majority Leader Reid for his commitment to protecting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid – and his opposition to a short-term deal that could drive up mortgage and interest rates for the middle class – we strongly urge him and all Democrats to insist on a balanced approach that ends outrageous tax breaks and loopholes for big corporations and the rich,” said Justin Rubin, executive director of MoveOn.org, in a statement.

He added: “Unfortunately, this plan doesn't do that.”

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