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Mitch McConnell’s Premature Retreat

It’s no surprise some in Congress have hailed Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s new debt ceiling proposal as politically savvy. What’s surprising is that a large portion of McConnell’s establishment Republicans and even some “conservatives” have joined the chorus. But the shocking measure would betray the trust of the American voters who sent a wave of Republicans to Congress in 2010 to put the nation’s fiscal house in order.

McConnell’s plan would allow President Obama to raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion in three separate installments over the next year unless two-thirds of both houses of Congress disagree with the increase. Everyone knows Republicans lack a super-majority. The president would have to propose spending cuts equal to the amount of each hike, but Congress could (and probably would) ignore the suggestions.

This proposal is purely political in its motivation, intended to shift the responsibility for unpopular debt ceiling hikes entirely onto the president. Establishment Republicans like McConnell are gambling that by putting the blame for debt hikes on Obama, they will help the Republican challenger in 2012 and get control of spending in 2013. This is wishful thinking.

Electing a more fiscally conservative president and Congress is essential, of course, but McConnell’s proposal to grant more borrowing power to the biggest-spending president in American history is not the way to do it. It’s a mistake to think that giving Democrats impunity to borrow and spend today will somehow ensure a victory for fiscal restraint tomorrow.

Aside from the fact that delegating completely unlimited borrowing power to the president is constitutionally questionable at best, it’s just a bad idea. Doing so is not in the public interest and would only put us that much closer to a Greek-style debt crisis in the next few years. Washington is already borrowing 43 cents of every dollar it spends. The national debt has doubled in the past five years, including a 43-percent increase in just two years. This year’s budget deficit of $1.6 trillion indicates we have a serious spending problem, and we simply cannot afford to increase the government’s borrowing power without enacting substantial budget reforms.

Polls show that the American people want to see three things: real cuts, spending caps with teeth, and a Balanced Budget Amendment. 

The fiscal responsibility mandate of the 2010 elections means Congress should not approve another penny of debt without first enacting “Cut, Cap, and Balance.” 

McConnell’s plan raises serious questions about whether Republicans are committed to pursuing the change Americans are demanding. His eagerness to cover Republicans politically without putting up much of a fight for real reform suggests business-as-usual is McConnell’s strategy of choice.

But there are senators committed to restoring fiscal sanity. A bill proposed by Sens. Rand Paul, (Ky.0, Pat Toomey, (Penn.), and Mike Lee (Utah), (S.1340) would raise the debt limit, but only if accompanied by substantial spending cuts, an enforceable statutory spending cap, and the submission to the states of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Unlike the misguided McConnell proposal, this bill would satisfy the public's demand for permanent reform and end the reckless borrowing and overspending.

McConnell’s retreat, however politically clever, is still a retreat. And it’s premature. The debt ceiling will have to be raised, but August 2 is not Armageddon. If an increase isn’t passed before then, the United States will not default on its debt, nor will the president have to delay Medicare, Social Security or military pay. Some spending will have to be delayed, yes, but there is still time to pursue real spending cuts and permanent reforms along with an increase in the debt ceiling without catastrophic results.

McConnell is not up for reelection again until 2014, but two Republicans are retiring and eight face reelection in 2012. It’s difficult to foresee Tea Party voters rewarding McConnell’s retreat by capturing Democratic seats or reelecting Senate Republicans who supported his proposal. Since the Senate Majority Leader has already lost sight of the voters’ mandate, Speaker John Boehner would be wise to bring the Paul/Toomey/Lee bill up for a vote in the House as soon as possible. He may be our last hope for restoring fiscal responsibility.

Former Texas Republican Rep. Dick Armey, served as the House Majority Leader from 1995-2003. He is currentlly the chairman of FreedomWorks and co-author of the book “Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto."