Is Plan B Now Plan A in the Debt Talks?

Democratic and GOP lawmakers may soon move on their backup plan.

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By most accounts, the debt ceiling talks have reached a kind of dead end. While not over, the two sides have realized that there just isn't any more common ground to haggle over. With just two weeks left until the Treasury Department's deadline to raise the federal debt limit, the pieces are beginning to come together for a steroid version of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's plan to raise the debt ceiling in increments over the next year and a half. But the plan still has a tough road ahead, with conservatives crying foul over concessions to President Obama.

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The latest version of the plan is a hybrid of McConnell's original idea and what both sides have loosely agreed to in the White House debt talks. Democratic sources say that McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are working on a proposal that would immediately enact the $1.5 trillion in spending cuts which White House and GOP negotiations have generally agreed on, and which then would space out debt ceiling hikes through the rest of 2011 and 2012. Those spending cuts would cover only federal discretionary spending, leaving entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security untouched. Lawmakers are also considering adding a provision which would set up a Senate committee to recommend further spending cuts, and bring them to a vote on the Senate floor. President Obama didn't mention it specifically in his press conference Friday, but did note that he'd support a plan less ambitious than the grand bargain he had been pushing.

In the meantime, both the House and Senate will soon vote on the so-called "Cut, Cap, and Balance" plan promoted by the Republican Study Committee, a conservative House group. That proposal would enact much deeper spending cuts, and only trigger a debt ceiling hike once the Senate and House had passed a balanced budget amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. It's unlikely to pass, but is seen as a necessary catharsis for conservative lawmakers who may have to hold their noses and vote for a smaller deal.

But not all will. Conservative opposition to the idea continues to grow. South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, a regular thorn in the GOP leadership's side, promised to use "every tool in the Senate" to stop McConnell's plan. "No Republican was elected to give President Obama more power and that's what this plan does," DeMint wrote on his Twitter account. It's not an idle threat. Even one senator could block the bill for days, making it difficult to pass under a tight deadline.

At this point, Hill staffers are still looking at the plan as a possible backup, although with limited time left lawmakers will soon have to move on it. The Democratic source noted that, even if it never sees the light of day, the McConnell plan helps the White House's position by providing another backup option rather than the short-term debt ceiling hike which conservatives have been pushing.