Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
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 as Obama and congressional leaders met for a fourth straight day — struggling to avert an unprecedented government default threatened for Aug. 2 — and rank-and-file lawmakers advanced fallback measures in case the bipartisan 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.
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.
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