House Republicans Push Ahead With Their Own Deficit Reduction 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.

With White House negotiations stalled and an Aug. 2 deadline looming, House Republicans will bring an alternative solution to rein in spending while raising the U.S.’s borrowing authority to the floor next week in a bid to break the debt-ceiling deadlock that threatens the U.S.’s credit and could spark a spreading fiscal calamity. But it’s unclear whether the balanced-budget amendment could attract Democratic votes to pass the House, let alone the Senate. And the spending component would likely fall prey to a presidential veto, leaving lawmakers back at square one.

The new plan isn’t new, exactly. Known as Cut, Cap and Balance, the three-pronged proposal would cut some $2.4 trillion from the federal budget, fulfilling Republican promises not to vote to raise the debt limit through 2012 unless they secure commensurate spending cuts. It would establish caps and structural controls on future spending. And it would be contingent on the passage of a constitutional balanced-budget amendment in both the House and the Senate, which requires a 2/3 majority in both chambers. The plan will be brought to the House floor Wednesday, members say, followed by the balanced-budget amendment, which will also receive a vote in the Senate next week.

House Speaker John Boehner cast Cut, Cap and Balance as the latest example of a new House majority seizing a leadership role in a quest to bring the nation’s fiscal problems under control. “All year, we have led on the big issues,” Boehner said at a press conference after a two-hour conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol. “We asked the President to lead. We asked him to put forward a plan. And he hasn’t. We will.”

By coalescing around Cut, Cap and Balance, the GOP accomplishes a variety of political goals. It proves to President Obama that the party is united and capable of passing an alternative to Obama’s grand bargain. It provides lawmakers political cover against the charge that they have abandoned their fiscal duties. And it allows the House majority to promote themselves as fiscal-conservative mavericks while passing the baton to the Senate. Sean Duffy, a freshman from Wisconsin, says the rationale is simple. “Kick it to the Senate,” he says. “Tell the President, ‘You’ve gotta come with us on this. You want to be responsible, get your team to come over and support the debt-limit increase along with a long-term glide path to sustainability…We’re going to give him the opportunity to go big.”

In recent weeks, as the Republican position has hardened in the face of political pressure, the popularity of Cut, Cap and Balance has snowballed within the conference. It was championed by the conservative Republican Study Committee, which has promoted a pledge that sought to hold lawmakers to a promise not to raise the nation’s debt ceiling unless the trifecta of demands was met. The pledge itself has also gained traction, with eight presidential candidates, 12 senators and 36 House members having signed on by Friday morning. Tea Party groups have aggressively touted the pledge, which calls for spending to be pared down by 2021 to 18% of GDP, the 40-year historical average.

A consensus to adopt the plan as the preferred path forward emerged during a lengthy conference meeting Friday, which included a presentation from former Treasury official Jay Powell, who outlined the sweeping consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling. Paul Ryan and members of Republican leadership also spoke, according to one member, before Jim Jordan, the chairman of the RSC and a key proponent of Cut, Cap and Balance, took the floor to explain the plan. More than a dozen members spoke, according to a person in the meeting, and the party emerged in lockstep, touting the idea as the only plan with a shot at passing the House. “Negotiations aren’t going anywhere” at the White House, says Jeff Flake of Arizona. “We have a real plan. We have the votes.” Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, called Cut, Cap and Balance “the only plan so far that has a potential to get a majority in the House.”

But while Republicans were “optimistic,” Boehner said, about the plan’s potential in the Senate, it seems highly doubtful that it has the votes to pass the upper chamber. And with a two-thirds majority required, it will still need Democratic votes to pass the House.

At a press conference on Friday morning, Obama dismissed the need for a balanced-budget amendment and pointed out that the cuts in the House Republican plan — whose name he mangled and whose details he shredded — were even deeper than the draconian levels put forth by the Ryan budget. If the plan has no chance of passage, it’s a fair question whether its authors are, as they claim, leading when their opponents wouldn’t–or providing themselves political cover as the country lurches toward a disaster.

Alex Altman is a Washington correspondent for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @aaltman82. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.