WASHINGTON -- The Senate's top two officials are working on what one aide called a "hybrid," fail-safe solution to the debt ceiling debate that could garner enough political support to pass Congress.
The plan, which is being hatched by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), would ensure that over $1.5 trillion in cuts over ten years be passed into law. It would also grant President Obama the authority to extend the debt ceiling through the 2012 election season while requiring him to propose -- but allowing him to ultimately veto -- cuts beyond those initial $1.5 trillion.
Additionally, the deal would create a new "deficit commission" comprised solely of lawmakers who would be tasked with finding additional savings in the budget. The commission's recommendations would be given automatic, amendment-free votes in both chambers of Congress.
First reported by The Washington Post, the plan is far from complete. A Republican source on the Hill cautioned not to treat it as an official option, let alone a top one. "There are a lot of people with a lot of ideas," the source said. A Democratic source said that the language -- let alone composition -- of each part of the deal remains un-finalized.
But the contours do, on the surface, seem promising. The basic premise is to blend the debt ceiling deal crafted in talks led by Vice President Joe Biden with the plan that McConnell proposed this week, which would give the president authority to raise the debt ceiling while vetoing corresponding cuts.
As the dual plan is envisioned, House Republicans would be able to claim that they passed a deal without including revenue raisers or tax hikes. The president, meanwhile, will be able to move the debt ceiling debate into 2013, albeit while having to hold a largely pre-determined vote for a second extension (once the $1.5 trillion in cuts run out) before the election. Democrats would have to swallow a deal that didn't include revenues, but they will have protected entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare from cuts.
"It is a hybrid approach," said the Democratic official familiar with the proposal. "It is a way to get us some cuts now while making sure we have an option that we do not default on our debt."
While the concept may seem politically palatable, it could easily fall apart over the specific details. For starters, negotiators are not yet locked in to the actual cuts that have been suggested during the Biden talks. The president, meanwhile, continues to push for a larger package of cuts and reforms. The failure to include revenue increases in the hybrid plan could pose serious problems for Democratic lawmakers. Further, the composition of the deficit commission -- let alone the number of members -- is subject to haggling.
"There is a lot of detail on the commission part not locked," acknowledged one source familiar with the McConnell-Reid talks.
UPDATE: Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) seemed to embrace the idea of combining the McConnell approach with the Biden talks.
"We would like to see, even if we can't get a grand deal, that some real cuts be added to Senator McConnell's proposal and perhaps Senator McConnell's proposal be modified," Schumer said. "That is another possibility, not as good as a larger deal, but certainly better than just avoiding default."
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