Weekly Standard: Introducing The Debt Two-Step
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
House speaker John Boehner's new plan to cut spending while raising the debt limit faces two obstacles. It must win the votes of most of the 240 Republicans in the House. And the plan, or something like it, needs to be accepted by Senate majority leader Harry Reid. At the moment, overcoming the obstacles is anything but assured.
The plan, unveiled yesterday by Boehner at a meeting of the House Republican conference, has two aspects that President Obama is desperate to avoid. It would require a second vote on lifting the debt ceiling next year and, Republican officials said, would involve no tax increases.
But it also has at least one part that conservative Republicans are likely to dislike as well. Boehner adopted the proposal of Reid to have an equally divided committee of congressional Republicans and Democrats decide on the spending cuts to accompany the second stage of raising the debt ceiling.
As the August deadline imposed by the Obama administration looms, Boehner and Reid appear to be closer to an agreement than was thought possible only days ago. They both would rely on spending cuts only — and no tax increases. And they agree on a two-step process for increasing the debt limit, or at least did.
Now Reid is echoing Obama's insistence that the debt limit be increased in one step, lasting through next year's presidential election. As Boehner was addressing his caucus, Reid announced a one-step plan to cut spending by $2.7 trillion and raise the debt limit by the same amount. But some of the "savings" were dubious. The White House issued a statement endorsing the Reid plan.
The Boehner plan initially calls for $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years, which would allow the debt ceiling to increase by $1 trillion. Spending caps would be enforced by automatic cuts if the caps were breached by excessive spending.
The second step, according to a Republican document, would "reduce the deficit" by $1.8 trillion in a fashion agreed to by the bipartisan committee of House and Senate members. The House and Senate would have to vote up or down on the package, with no amendments permitted. This would allow the president to seek a $1.6 trillion hike in the debt ceiling.
The first step would raise the limit enough to continue borrowing until the end of this year or into early 2012. The second step would extend borrowing until after the 2012 election.
If that sounds complicated, it gets still more so. After the second round of spending cuts was passed, the president would have to formally ask for a boost in the debt limit. If either chamber disapproved, Obama could veto their action. Only 34 senators would be needed to sustain his veto, an easy number to reach.
One more thing. The Boehner plan would guarantee a vote in the House and Senate on a balanced budget amendment by the end of 2011.
Before Boehner outlined this plan yesterday, it was uncertain how many House Republicans would line up behind him. Since only a few Democrats are likely to back his plan, the speaker will need the support of nearly 218 of the 240 Republican House members.
Assuming the measure passes the House in midweek, it will go to the Senate. Reid could have the Senate do nothing or ask the Senate to pass his proposal. If his plan were approved, the two bodies would then meet to work out their differences.
Why is Obama so adamant about avoiding a second debt vote? Very simple, a Republican involved in debt limit talks says. Obama doesn't want the issue of his spending and borrowing to be highlighted once again as he's seeking reelection.