Tea party takes its turn in debt battle

By Andrew Taylor

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 18 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders are giving tea party-backed Republican freshmen the run of the House this week with a plan to let the government borrow another $2.4 trillion — but only after big and immediate spending cuts and adoption by Congress of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.

This "cut, cap and balance" plan is set to pass the House on Tuesday but is sure to stall in the Senate, where majority Democrats say it would lead to decimating budget cuts and make it harder to pass tax increases on the wealthy. The White House weighed in Monday, calling the bill an "empty political statement" that President Barack Obama would veto.

And even if the scheme could pass, there's no way Congress will adopt a balanced budget amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote in both House and Senate.

As the White House and Congress struggle to head off an unprecedented and potentially disastrous government default, Obama met quietly in the Oval Office on Sunday morning with House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. A Boehner spokesman, Brendan Buck, said "there is nothing to report in terms of an agreement or progress."

Tea party lawmakers are insisting on the effort to try to put their stamp on the debate over the so-called debt limit, and GOP leaders — lacking other ideas that might win a majority in the Republican dominated House — were quick to give their OK at a spirited closed-door meeting on Friday.

Major rating agencies such as Moody's and Standard and Poor's have signaled they're poised to lower the nation's coveted Triple-A credit ratings if no agreement is reached on the nation's debt.

On Monday, Moody's issued a report suggesting that the U.S. could eliminate the threat to its credit rating by removing the legal limit on the debt.

Tuesday's House vote on the cut, cap and balance plan comes after more than a week of White House talks with congressional leaders failed to produce a breakthrough. The tally will be held exactly two weeks before an Aug. 2 deadline to avoid a potentially devastating default on U.S. obligations like payments to bondholders and senior citizens receiving Social Security.

"Let's let the American people decide," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, on "Fox News Sunday." ''Do they want something common sense as cutting spending, capping the growth in government and requiring a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution?"

The plan doesn't actually include any spending cuts; rather, it endorses a spending cap on agency operating budgets for next year that the House is already working toward. The new plan promises to cut $35 billion more from so-called mandatory programs like farm subsidies, food stamps and Medicaid, the health program for the poor and disabled, but doesn't say where they would fall.

In a statement, the White House warned that such an approach could force significant cuts in education, research, Medicare and Social Security, and "put at risk the retirement security for tens of millions of Americans."

After the House exercise and a failed Senate vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, Plan B appears to be to have the Senate vote to give President Barack Obama sweeping power to order increases in the debt limit totaling $2.5 trillion over the coming year without approval by lawmakers.

The hope appears to be that after trying it their way, enough House Republicans will be able to stomach the emerging Senate plan to allow it to pass, though it's plain there will have to be plenty of Democrats voting for it as well to make up for dozens of unyielding lawmakers unwilling to abandon their tea party promises.

For their part, Senate Republicans are demanding a vote this week on a balanced budget constitutional amendment, though they have zero chance of winning the required 67 votes in a chamber where they control just 47.

"No one believes there are 67 votes for any version of that," Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said Sunday on CBS' "Face The Nation."

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