WASHINGTON — Failure to raise the U.S. debt limit would probably ensure President Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned fellow conservatives on Wednesday, fresh evidence of deep GOP political divisions on an issue of paramount importance to the nation and its economy.
McConnell spoke before Obama and congressional leaders met privately at the White House for a fourth straight day — they broke up after a little over two hours — struggling to avert an unprecedented government default threatened for Aug. 2.
At the same time, Moody’s Investors Service announced it was reviewing the U.S. bond rating for a possible downgrade, a change that could lead to higher interest rates for many Americans. Moody’s cited a “rising possibility that the statutory debt limit will not be raised on a timely basis.”
At the Capitol, rank-and-file lawmakers advanced their own fallback measures in case the bipartisan compromise talks fail.
One version, authored by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was designed to make sure Social Security benefits are paid on time. Another, unveiled by a trio of House conservatives, would give priority to paychecks for members of the armed forces.
“Currently, there is not a single debt limit proposal that can pass the House of Representatives,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a written statement. He said efforts should focus on “what we can agree upon” rather than Democratic demands for raising taxes or GOP calls to repeal the year-old health care bill.
Without an increase in government borrowing authority by Aug. 2, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has warned, there could be a default posing a catastrophic risk to the economy, still recovering from the worst recession in decades.
In a sobering reminder of the stakes, the Treasury Department announced that the federal deficit was on pace to exceed $1 trillion for the third consecutive year, and was likely to top last year’s $1.29 trillion.
Moody’s released its announcement after the U.S. financial markets had closed for the day, and cited fears of a default on U.S. Treasury debt obligations. Six weeks ago, the firm had announced that a rating review would be likely in mid-July unless there was meaningful progress in negotiations to raise the debt limit.
In a radio interview on the Laura Ingraham Show, McConnell predicted that if Congress fails to act, Obama will argue “that Republicans are making the economy worse and try to convince the public, maybe with some merit, if people start not getting their Social Security checks and military families start getting letters saying their service people overseas don’t get paid.”
“You know it’s an argument he has a good chance of winning, and all of a sudden we (Republicans) have co-ownership of a bad economy. That is a very bad positioning going into an election,” he said.
McConnell said his first choice was to reach a good compromise with Obama.
Short of that, “my second obligation is to my party … to prevent them from being sucked into a horrible position politically that would allow the president probably to get re-elected because we didn’t handle this difficult situation correctly.”
At least in part, McConnell’s comments were a rebuttal to conservatives who criticized his proposal on Tuesday to let Obama raise the debt limit without a vote of Congress.
Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich called that idea an “an irresponsible surrender to big government, big deficits and continued overspending,” and Ingraham said she had received emails from conservative listeners likening McConnell to Pontius Pilate.
The Republican lawmaker brushed aside the biblical reference. But without mentioning Gingrich by name, he referred to two government shutdowns of 1995 that the one-time House speaker engineered in hopes of winning deep spending cuts from a Democratic president.
The tactic backfired politically on Gingrich and the Republicans, and benefited President Bill Clinton.
A decade and a half later, some Republicans have set out on what could be a similar course on the debt limit, demanding huge deficit cuts — and no tax increases — as the price for approving an increase in borrowing authority.
Some Democrats couldn’t resist the temptation to jab at them.
“You have the Republicans who walked out of the Biden talks. You have the speaker of the House who’s close to entering into a framework agreement with the president of the United State walk out because other Republicans in the House undercut him,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a participant in the talks led by Vice President Joe Biden.
“And now you have Republicans trashing a proposal put forward by the Republican leader in the Senate.”
Despite an extraordinary commitment of time, the private talks at the White House have made little if any progress since Obama presided the first session on Sunday.
House Republicans said they would press the president in Wednesday’s meeting to outline a deficit-prediction plan of his own.
Obama has said he is willing to take criticism from within his own party over program cuts in order to achieve a significant reduction in future deficits. But he also wants higher taxes that Republicans at the table say are unacceptable.
In advance of the day’s meeting, officials said the negotiators would probably turn their attention to cuts that had been proposed in the earlier negotiations in the Capitol led by Biden. Participants in those talks disagree about precisely how much they had agreed to, however, and it was unclear what the prospects were for agreement.
With hopes for a bipartisan deal dimmed, backup proposals proliferated.
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not rejected McConnell’s proposal, and officials say he is developing one of his own to create a commission that could recommend deficit cuts and be assured that Congress would vote on them.
Nelson’s proposal was designed to ensure that Social Security recipients receive their checks in the event of a default, mandating that the program’s obligations no longer count against the overall debt limit.
He acted one day after Obama cautioned that he could not guarantee the checks would go out if there was a default.
On the other side of the Capitol, Republican Reps. Steve King of Iowa, Louie Gohmert of Texas and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a presidential candidate, said if the debt ceiling is reached, the Treasury should fund pay any allowances for members of the Armed Forces first and obligations on the public debt second, ahead of all other expenses.
Congressional Republicans have had a relatively muted response to McConnell’s debt limit proposal. Privately, though, conservative lawmakers have been critical, accusing him of giving up the leverage the GOP has to force Obama into making deep spending cuts as the price for an increase in the debt limit.