Mixed Response from GOP as Boehner Pushes Unilateral Debt Plan

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Michael Reynolds / EPA

US Speaker of the House John Boehner at a news conference on the debt-limit negotiations on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., July 15, 2011.

Clarification appended, 11:15 AM Tuesday:

House Speaker John Boehner hawked his new proposal to raise the federal debt limit on Monday afternoon, imploring House Republicans in a closed-door meeting to back a plan that meets the GOP’s signal demands, but falls short of the strict standards imposed by Tea Party purists who remain resistant to compromise.

Boehner’s framework has two stages. The first would cut about $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending over the next decade. Congress would take that vote first, according to a blueprint provided by Boehner‘s office. At that point, Obama could request a debt-ceiling increase of up to $1 trillion, enough to postpone a repeat of the debt debate until early 2012 (a timeframe that Obama and Senate Democrats have rejected). Congress would then have the opportunity to cast a symbolic vote of disapproval, which Obama could veto.

The second stage of the plan has two parts. It would require the House and Senate to vote on a constitutional balanced-budget amendment between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, a feature designed to appeal to the conservative Republican Study Committee that incubated the “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill. It also establishes a special joint committee comprised of 12 members — six Democrats and six Republicans, split evenly between the House and Senate — that would craft a package to reduce the deficit by $1.8 trillion more over 10 years, finding savings partly from mandatory spending programs like Social Security and Medicare, which Democrats have sworn to safeguard. The committee would produce a proposal by Nov. 23; enactment would permit Obama to request a subsequent debt-limit hike of $1.6 trillion, enough to extend the U.S. borrowing authority into 2013.

In a meeting that lasted more than an hour on Monday afternoon, Boehner sought to temper expectations among his fractious conference, telling rank-and-file members that with eight days to raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit before the Aug. 2 deadline, an imperfect plan that meets Republicans’ chief demands — and thwarts Obama’s political preferences — was worthy of support. “I would call this plan less than perfect,” Boehner said at a press conference after the meeting. “But it does ensure that the spending cuts will be greater than the hike in the debt limit, and secondly, there are no tax increases.”

Driven to go it alone by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Sunday decision to advance his own competing plan, Boehner cobbled together a framework that borrows elements from several others. It lifts the symbolic Congressional vote of disapproval from Mitch McConnell, the balanced-budget amendment from Cut, Cap and Balance and the commission from any number of predecessors. It denies Obama and Senate Democrats the long-term increase in the U.S. borrowing authority they’ve asked for, imposes caps on future spending — exceeding them would trigger across-the-board spending reductions–and its spending cuts outpace the rise in the debt ceiling without increasing revenue. “We’ll never get a deal that everybody wants,” says GOP Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the House leadership’s whip team. “It’s not perfect. But it’s damn close, and it’s as close as we’re likely to get.”

Apart from its formula to increase the debt limit — and thereby sidestep an economic catastrophe that could plunge the U.S. back into a recession — there’s little, if anything, for Democrats to be excited about in the Boehner plan. President Obama will address it during a primetime speech Monday night, followed by the obligatory Boehner redirect. Meanwhile, the House Majority’s Tea Party wing, who have never met a good deal that wasn’t worth complaining about, offered a typically cool reception. While Boehner said the framework hews to the principles of the “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill tabled in the Senate, a coalition of lawmakers and advocacy groups bearing its name immediately released a statement that praised Boehner’s efforts while eviscerating his proposal. “Principles are not subject to negotiation. Unfortunately, the Speaker’s plan falls short of [our] principles,” the group said.

GOP lawmakers exiting the meeting in the basement of the Capitol said Boehner was well received, but many were noncommittal about the bill itself, saying they would wait to see the legislation before deciding whether to support it. “There’s a specificity that has to come out,” said Tim Scott, a freshman from South Carolina. Others were concerned that the spending reductions were deferred instead of immediate, that the commission’s recommendations would languish unfulfilled, or worse, that Democrats could insist on including revenues. Several House Republicans, including RSC chairman Jim Jordan, freshman Tim Huelskamp and Utah’s Jason Chaffetz, who has higher-office aspirations, quickly came out against Boehner’s framework. The House is expected to vote on the proposal on Wednesday.

Complicating the calculus is Reid’s proposal, which the White House backed Monday and which also meets the GOP’s original demands. “All the cuts included in this package have been previously supported by Republicans,” Reid said on the Senate floor of his plan, which would raise the debt ceiling by $2.7 trillion without including new revenues or touching entitlements. Reid, who will file cloture on his proposal Monday night, said that “Democrats have done more than just meet Republicans in the middle. We’ve met them all the way.”

Reid is right. But Republicans griped Monday that his framework failed to impose structural shackles that would restrain free-spending Washington. “The goal is not get past Aug. 2. The goal is to solve the problem,” freshman Republican James Lankford said after the conference meeting. Cole dismissed Reid’s inclusion of savings from unwinding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as fuzzy math. Paul Ryan’s budget used the same trick as Reid, of course*. But in the political calculus of the debt debacle, the only equation that matters is the one that can produce 217 votes in the House and 50 in the Senate. And at this late stage, Congress is still crunching the numbers.

*Clarification: Paul Ryan’s spokesman, Conor Sweeney, emails to say that the comparison of war savings in Ryan’s budget to that in Reid’s bill, widely repeated in news stories yesterday, is “not accurate.” You can read the full rebuttal here. Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” makes two budget comparison. One is to the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline; the other is to President Obama’s 2012 fiscal year budget request.  The CBO baseline assumes that spending on the global war on terror will remain consistent going forward. Given that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unwinding, most would consider that an inaccurate assumption, and Ryan says so. Compared to the CBO baseline, Ryan’s budget counts $1.04 trillion in global war on terror savings. Some of the savings in Reid’s framework comes from the same, which is why Boehner is deriding his figures as “phony accounting.” Compared to Obama’s budget request, Ryan counts no war savings. The question, I think, is which is the more pertinent comparison: a nonpartisan budget scorekeeper (albeit one that uses an apparently flawed methodology on this point) or Obama’s nonbinding proposal, which was never enacted. Ryan prefers the comparison to Obama’s budget, which offers $6.2 trillion in savings, $400 billion deeper than against the CBO baseline, and which doesn’t include war savings. For what it’s worth, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, Jon Kyl, knocked Ryan’s plan for having the same budgetary gimmick as Reid’s bill.

Alex Altman is a Washington correspondent for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @aaltman82You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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