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McConnell's Misstep Gives Dems Advantage on Fiscal Cliff

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

photo of Chris Frates
December 6, 2012

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell made a tactical error on the Senate floor Thursday that gives Democrats better political positioning on the debt limit fight -- a power shift in the fiscal cliff negotiations that Senate Democrats wasted no time exploiting.

This morning, McConnell asked Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to allow a vote on President Obama's proposal to give the president unlimited authority to increase the country's credit limit.

But when Reid granted his request this afternoon, McConnell balked and essentially filibustered his own proposal.

McConnell had wrongly bet that Reid wouldn't have the votes to pass the president's debt ceiling plan, helping Republicans show that Obama’s plan couldn't win the support of his own party and must not be a serious proposal made in good faith. He successfully used a similar gambit yesterday when he offered a White House proposal shopped by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that Reid declined to vote on.

But by bringing just the debt-limit proposal to the floor, McConnell overplayed his hand and gave Democrats an opening to continue to push Republicans to allow an up-or-down vote on their leader’s proposal.

“Senator McConnell’s filibuster prevented us from having this vote today, but I will continue to seek an agreement to hold an up-or-down vote on his proposal to avoid another debt ceiling debacle,” Reid said in a statement after the vote.

The debt ceiling has become a pivotal piece in the fiscal cliff negotiations.

Obama wants to include an increase in the debt limit in whatever deal gets struck this month to avoid a repeat of last year's legislative showdown that led to a downgrade in the country's credit rating.

Republicans, facing mounting pressure to cave on Obama’s insistence to increase tax rates on the wealthy, consider the debt limit some of the only leverage they have to force Democrats to agree to significant entitlement cuts.

And McConnell almost dealt away that leverage on Thursday.

Democrats giddily attributed the misstep to a GOP leadership still rattled by the election results and off-balance in the fiscal cliff negotiations.

“Senator McConnell’s usually very astute political radar was off today. And I would argue it’s because they’re sort of losing ground on the whole fiscal cliff argument,” Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters in a hastily called meeting.

Unlike the torrent of statements and publicity coming from the Democratic side, McConnell’s office has been silent. Messages to a spokesman have not been returned.  

UPDATE: McConnell spokesman John Ashbrook explained the move this way, "The bottom line is that Democrats are divided over whether it’s a good idea to hand the White House permanent, unlimited borrowing authority which makes sense since this President has already added over $5 trillion to our debt.”

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