Senate minority leader fashions escape for GOP on debt ceiling

Complex plan would essentially give Obama the power to raise the limit without congressional approval.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., may have come up with a plan to relieve pressure on congressional Republicans as the debt ceiling negotiations intensify with the Obama White House. McConnell announced a plan that would essentially give President Obama the power to raise the debt ceiling through the end of his first term on his own, calling it a "last-choice option" that would enable the United States to avoid default if negotiators fail to reach an agreement by August 2.

The complicated proposal would accomplish two goals: It would give Republicans the ability to say that they are not for default under any circumstances, and it would foist full ownership of the debt ceiling on Democrats.

Under the plan, Congress would pass a bill granting Obama the authority to raise the debt limit on his own provided he notified Congress of his intent to do so. His request to Congress for greater borrowing authority would be subject to a resolution of disapproval, which McConnell said would likely pass both chambers. Obama would then have to veto the resolution, forcing Democrats to back up his veto by a one-third-plus-one vote in each chamber. At the same time, Obama would be required to outline spending cuts he would approve equal to the amount of his extension request.

The plan would be carried out in three "tranches" - similar to the process by which Congress okayed the release of funds for the Troubled Asset Relief Program - that would force Obama to repeatedly request more borrowing authority and Congress to repeatedly vote to raise the limit in the run-up to the 2012 election.

McConnell cast the proposal as a necessary "back-up" plan Republicans were forced to construct, rather than a complicated political maneuver.

"This is, again, not my first choice," McConnell said. "I had hoped all year long that the opportunity presented by his request of us to raise the debt ceiling would generate a bipartisan agreement that would get our house in order by reducing spending. That may still happen -- I still hope it will -- but we're certainly not going to send the signal to the markets and to the American people that default is an option."

Of course, the proposal would likely be dead on arrival in the House.

A House Republican leadership aide said McConnell's proposal had not been vetted in the Conference, but that it stood almost no chance of movement in the chamber, where the rank-and-file have largely coalesced around their leadership's current strategy to continue to seek roughly $2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years coupled with budgetary reforms. The aide acknowledged, however, that House Republicans have not come up with a "Plan B" scenario, as McConnell appears to be doing, in the event that Congress and the White House can't reach an agreement.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on Tuesday that he couldn't say much about the proposal "because I don't know much about it."

Reid said he talked to McConnell "for just a few minutes" about it and that McConnell's chief of staff had briefed Reid.

"I would be happy to give his suggestion every consideration," Reid said.

The plan is vintage McConnell: politically savvy, but open to charges of cynicism. It represents a gamble that Republicans would benefit electorally if Democrats are forced to take the bait, but opens them to charges that they are less interested in cutting the deficit than in exploiting it for votes.

A senior Democratic official, who said Reid and the White House are reviewing the plan, noted it is a "political" plan designed to free Republicans from responsibility for voting to raise the debt ceiling.

"It's clever, but it's not principled," the official said.

Criticism also came from the right.

McConnell's plan was met with swift skepticism from outside conservative advocacy groups who fear it gives too much power to the White House and fails to secure the kind of systemic budgetary reforms that conservatives are seeking in the debt ceiling debate. Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, said McConnell's proposal was "a serious walk back from that position and would seemingly trade the leverage needed to achieve reforms in return for political gains."

A spokesman for leading fiscal conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he sees the proposal as "a political solution, not a policy solution."

Susan Davis contributed to this report.