Debt Talks’ Dire Hour: Why the Failsafe Plan Could Still Fail

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U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, left, speaks as President of Let Freedom Ring Colin Hanna, right, listens during a news conference June 22, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Less than two weeks before Congress hits its deadline to raise the debt ceiling, the path toward an agreement on deficit reduction remains murky. White House negotiations have slowed. House Republicans have coalesced behind a plan that can’t pass. And while the Gang of Six has resurfaced, earning kudos from the President and sparking glimmers of hope that Washington can elude an economic train wreck, the bipartisan group’s work toward a long-term fix doesn’t solve the short term problem: there isn’t enough time to craft a bill, score it, sell it, and pass it by Aug. 2. Despite gathering murmurs about the need for a stopgap debt-limit hike that buys the Gang time to do its work, President Obama, citing to need to soothe businesses’ anxiety, has vowed to veto a short-term increase in the U.S.’s borrowing authority.

This weak hand could leave top lawmakers confronting disaster with one card left to play: the unorthodox McConnell-Reid plan, which would give Obama the authority to raise the debt limit some $2.5 trillion in three installments between now and next fall, each of which would be met with a vote of disapproval from Congress. The measure would cut $1.5 trillion in spending with no new taxes, and it would force Obama to shoulder the political consequences of increasing the U.S. debt while denying him the political capital that would accompany a grand bargain. Nobody, not even Senate minority leader McConnell, the progenitor of the plan, is particularly enthusiastic about the idea, which was cast from the outset as a contingency. As time grows short and the push for a grand bargain stalls, Plan B is looking more likely.

The problem is that for a failsafe, the McConnell-Reid plan is anything but. “Whatever we do,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday, “even if it’s the failsafe, fallback, last-ditch option crafted by Senator McConnell, it will be hard.  The votes won’t come easy.”

In the Senate, McConnell faces an insurrection on his right flank led by Jim DeMint, who has called the plan “suicidal for Republicans,” suggested it could catalyze third-party rumblings, and vowed to use “every tool” available to thwart it. But the bigger obstacle lies in the House, where the conservative Republicans who championed “Cut, Cap and Balance” are livid at the prospect of handing Obama the debt-limit increase he’s sought without the structural changes they demand. House Speaker John Boehner has walked the tightrope carefully, keeping a safe distance from the McConnell-Reid plan while acknowledging that it’s worth keeping in the quiver as the deadline approaches. Publicly, he has said that he has “no idea” if the plan would have the votes to pass the House as a last-ditch option.

Meanwhile, one of Boehner’s Tea Party freshmen, Joe Walsh of Illinois, is scrambling to foment opposition to the McConnell plan. Walsh, who recently cut a YouTube video demanding Obama “quit lying” about the possibility of default, is actively whipping against the measure, circulating a letter that urges Republican leaders not to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. He hopes to garner 100 signatures; late last night, he said he had nearly 80. There are a host of conservatives nearly certain to oppose the McConnell plan, even with the economy approaching a cliff. Nine Republicans, including presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, opposed Cut, Cap and Balance; 38 have pledged not to increase the debt ceiling without the fulfillment of its components. A couple dozen more voted against the 2011 budget that kept the government’s lights on in April, and would seem unlikely to compromise–particularly since much of the House GOP are unmoved by the dark forecasts issued by economic experts. “The conference could kill it before it even gets to the floor for a vote,” says one aide to a House Republican freshman.

Wavering Republicans already face stiff pressure from the conservative grassroots, who have launched a preemptive strike against the McConnell plan. One letter, signed by the leaders of five major groups, promises to withhold support for any lawmaker who supports it and notes that “many of you owe your jobs” to the constituency they represent. The coded warning: Brace for a primary challenge if you defy us. “Rather than forcing Congress to make these tough decisions, the McConnell plan allows Congress to abdicate its duty,” Tea Party Patriots co-chair Jenny Beth Martin said in a statement.  “We expected more when we elected these men and women to represent us and we will continue to demand more.”

These arguments resonate with the new class of House Republicans, several of whom say a vote for McConnell-Reid would be extremely difficult to explain to constituents who expected them to maintain a steadfast stance against out-of-control spending and backroom gimmickry. Many conservative legislators are more interested in taking principled stands than legislating, or at least legislating in the fashion to which Washington is accustomed. This is not just a matter of obstinance; it’s a survival strategy. According to a YouGov poll, two-thirds of Republicans say they would prefer a representative who “sticks to his or her principles, no matter what,” rather than compromise to get things done. Only 32% of Democrats feel the same.

For that reason, it would fall on Democrats, who have signaled greater willingness to swallow an unpalatable deal in order to sidestep a fiscal calamity, to nudge the deal across the line. The House Democratic leaders, who say the “overwhelming majority” of the caucus backs a grand bargain, have been tepid on the McConnell plan. “Its only virtue,” Chris Van Hollen said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, “is that it recognizes the United States has to pay its bills to avoid an economic catastrophe.”

In the end, that may be virtue enough.

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.