Boehner's Two-Part Debt Plan: Raise the Limit, Then Cut

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With little time remaining before the Treasury's Aug. 2 deadline, the House speaker released his proposal -- which looks quite different from the Democratic alternative

House Republicans and Senate Democrats sped forward Monday on their collision course over the debt ceiling, with the debate likely to come to a head this weekend, just days before the August 2 deadline when the United States is scheduled to begin defaulting on its debts.

The two chambers are scheduled to move forward this week on competing plans offered by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The two plans outlined on Monday share few similarities, have been denounced by the other chamber, and offer little obvious hope for the two chambers to resolve the differences in conference and send legislation to President Obama before next Tuesday's deadline. Despite the heightened stakes, leaders on both sides reiterated their view that default would not ultimately occur.

The House Republican plan, as outlined in a background briefing by GOP aides because legislative text has not yet been released, would offer an immediate $1 trillion raise in the debt ceiling tied to legislation that includes still-undefined discretionary spending caps aimed at reduce spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The $1 trillion stopgap increase would carry the U.S. until early 2012--forcing another vote in an election year, which the White House is seeking to avoid.

The House bill would then create a bipartisan, bicameral joint committee made up of 12 lawmakers who would be charged with finding $1.6-$1.8 trillion in savings through whatever means they determine by November 23. If a majority of the committee approves the deficit reduction proposal, their recommendations would be fast-tracked through both chambers, with no amendments allowed, and protected by an up-or-down majority vote by December 23.

If and when the package is enacted, there would be a symbolic congressional authorization to the president to request a second debt limit increase not to exceed what the committee has enacted, meaning no more than $1.5 trillion, which would then push the debt limit into early 2013. The process for his request would be similar to a scheme first introduced by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that would have Congress vote on a resolution of disapproval in a political gesture to put the pressure on Democrats in the vote.

The GOP plan also requires the House and Senate to vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment by the measure after October 11, but before the end of the year. It does not require that the measure be passed by the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment--a sticking point for many fiscal conservatives.

The plan, of course, is riddled with potential problems that offer no surer path to avoid default than the previous failed attempts. The White House is opposed to the two-step, short-term solution, and Boehner's right flank could be potentially hostile to the idea of an enhanced super-committee charged with coming up with a proposal that the rank-and-file would have no ability to amend. A GOP aide made it clear that no Republican lawmakers appointed to the committee would support tax increases, but that suggests the same problems that have dogged this debate will occur again in short order--a signal that could rattle the markets already wary of the U.S. government's ability to solve long-term fiscal problems.

"A short-term solution is no solution at all," Reid said on the Senate floor, arguing that markets "need certainty" that Boehner's six-to-eight-month increase would not provide. Reid offered a counterproposal, quickly embraced by the White House, that would raise the debt ceiling past the 2012 elections and include a plan for $2.7 trillion in spending cuts. Reid's proposal includes $1 trillion in savings assumed from winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reid and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) defended assuming savings from reduced war spending, noting that a budget passed by the House and supported by most Senate Republicans includes the same reductions.

But without those savings, which members of both parties have derided as gimmickry, the plan would be essentially comprised of cuts identified in talks led by Vice President Biden. The bulk of the savings, $1.2 trillion in discretionary cuts, was unspecified, with a portion required to come from defense. Finding the cuts would be left to appropriations committees.

"Senator Reid has put forward a responsible compromise that cuts spending in a way that protects critical investments and does not harm the economic recovery," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. "All the cuts put forward in this approach were previously agreed to by both parties through the process led by the vice president. Senator Reid's plan also reduces the deficit more than enough to meet the contrived dollar-for-dollar criteria called for by House Republicans, and, most importantly, it removes the cloud of a possible default from our economy through 2012." Carney encouraged House Republicans to agree to the plan. "The ball is in their court," he said.

With McConnell backing Boehner's plan, Reid may lack the votes to pass his plan in the Senate and the House will not take it up. Reid could try to amend the House plan if it passes to insert the Democratic alternative. But Senate GOP opposition too, may bar that option.

That leaves Republicans hoping Reid, as time runs out, will have no choice but to accept the Boehner plan, forcing Obama to choose between a veto and a default risk. Reid and Schumer vowed Democrats would defeat the Boehner plan rather than allow that scenario.

The two chambers could vote as early as Wednesday on their competing proposals, making a weekend session all but certain. The House is expected to vote on Wednesday, but a GOP leadership aide said the vote would be contingent on the Congressional Budget Office scoring the bill. "Our members won't vote on it without a score," the aide said.

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Susan Davis & Billy House

Susan Davis is a correspondent (Congress) for National Journal. Billy House is a staff writer (Congress) for National Journal.

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