July 15 (Bloomberg) — I get the feeling that it’s all over but the shouting. We may look back and say that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s convoluted parliamentary “backup plan” marked the effective end of the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis. The winner? President Barack Obama.
Sure, an agreement this month on reducing the deficit would be preferable for restoring confidence in the economy and for the president’s legacy. Obama has told lawmakers they need to decide by Friday if a bargain is possible. But even if the parties miraculously strike a deal in the Cabinet Room, the votes aren’t there on Capitol Hill to pass it.
The plan offered by McConnell this week does what Obama and the Republicans claimed they want to avoid: It kicks the can down the road again. Republicans in both houses — not to mention online and on the airwaves — were furious about his proposal, and McConnell even backpedaled from it a bit. But they have nothing else to fall back on.
If you went into the congressional kitchen to cook up the perfect Washington fudge, this is what you’d get. Instead of “doing something big” about the deficit, McConnell is proposing to do nothing — then blame the other side.
It’s a sign of how ungovernable the country has become that something resembling this scheme is now the most practical way forward.
Best Political Outcome
Yet politically, an elaborate fudge is the best possible outcome both for Republicans who talked themselves onto a ledge and for a president facing an imminent disaster and recalcitrant opposition that spits on the word “compromise.”
McConnell concluded that his party needed cover for a strategic retreat. Under his Rube Goldberg meets Robert’s Rules of Order scenario, Congress would give the president the authority to raise the debt ceiling in three increments, then disapprove of his action, then sustain his veto of the disapproval with few if any Republican votes. (McConnell acknowledged that Republicans wouldn’t have the two-thirds required to override Obama’s veto.)
His little maneuver — hard for even wonks to follow in detail — wouldn’t make Obama “own” the deficit, as McConnell hopes. But it would allow Republicans to say they voted against an increase in the debt ceiling while sparing them blame for causing a catastrophic default.
You can see why the idea might also appeal to the president, though he will accept only one vote, not the prolonged torture of three that McConnell proposes. It’s not a bad way out for him. The “Big Fudge” would let him frost his cake and eat it, too.