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Washington Watch: Profiles In Cowardice

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Arlen Specter Blog
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By Arlen Specter

Senator McConnell’s proposal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling reaches a new low in Congressional profiles in cowardice. He wants an Act of Congress to give the President the authority to raise the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion and for the President to then decide where federal expenditures could be cut by an equal amount. Congress could overrule the President with a resolution of disapproval which would be subject to a veto which would surely follow. Overriding the veto would require a two-thirds vote of both Houses which would be a practical impossibility. The cynical plan would enable Republicans to vote for the resolution of disapproval, knowing it wouldn’t be enacted, and then claim no responsibility for raising the debt ceiling or cuts in popular programs.

There is agreement that the United States, and indeed the world, face a monumental economic problem. Ten days ago, President Obama and House Speaker Boehner were negotiating a long term deal, with $4 trillion in deficit reduction including $1 trillion in increased revenue. When the Tea Party continued its’ adamant refusal to consider any tax increase, Boehner withdrew.

So the focus has now shifted from economics to pure politics – the blame game. The McConnell plan puts all the blame on President Obama and the Democrats. President Obama on his own raises the debt ceiling and selects the budget cuts. Republicans vote against both. The Democrats then have to produce at least 34 votes in the Senate and 145 votes in the House to sustain the veto to defeat the resolution of disapproval.

How many times have you heard members of Congress say we were sent to Washington to make tough votes? How many times have you heard members of Congress talk sanctimoniously about accountability? Cowardice in avoiding tough votes is bipartisan. The Senate Democrat Majority Leader Harry Reid has failed to call up the annual budget resolution because of the tough political votes involved and instead said he was leaving up to Vice President Biden’s negotiations to produce the painful cuts.

The McConnell plan may fail. It should. Aside from being terrible public policy, it is blatantly unconstitutional. The Congress has the sole authority for the debt ceiling, appropriations and the programs to be funded or rejected.

There may not be enough votes to pass an Act of Congress authorizing McConnell’s plan. Many of the Tea Party in Congress and some Republican presidential aspirants have objected to complicity in a scheme which raises the debt ceiling without using the occasion to making lasting structural changes in the budget process. In the background, there is more than a Republican interest in deficit reduction. The right wing wants to use this occasion to permanently reducing the size of government by starving the beast. Democratic members may refuse to cast votes which end up supporting cuts in popular programs like social security and medicare.

If the President hangs tough in sticking to his declaration “don’t call my bluff,” all sides will have to reassess the issue on whom the voters will blame for default. House Speaker Newt Gingrich played Russian roulette closing down the government in 1995 and got shot in the head with President Clinton emerging the victor.

In my thirty years in the Senate and my study of American history, I’ve seen our government come together frequently at the last minute to find a way to resolve seemingly intractable issues although I’ve never seen a situation this bad.

This country was founded on compromise. Our political process has worked for 224 years on compromise. In 1982, an impasse was avoided when President Reagan agreed to $99 billion in higher taxes for $280 billion in reduced spending. That formula could work now. Maybe we can win this one for the Gipper.

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