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McConnell's Panic Attack

Is Mitch McConnell panicking? It sure looks that way. The debt ceiling proposal he released yesterday afternoon confused pretty much everybody, including yours truly. But stripped to its bare essence it’s actually quite simple: Congress would give President Obama the authority to make good on the country’s debts, without imposing any binding policy constraints. This is, more or less, what Obama wanted originally and what Republicans have been saying they wouldn’t give him.

Perhaps McConnell is listening to business leaders nervous that Congress will leave the current debt ceiling in place, causing the U.S. to delay some government payments and potentially causing a financial crisis that could quickly spread around the world. Perhaps McConnell is watching the polls and noticing that voters don’t share his party’s aversion to taxes on the wealthy. Or perhaps it’s some combination of those and other factors. Whatever the reason, he’s clearly very worried. Otherwise he wouldn’t have made such an offer in the first place.

Of course, McConnell has designed his proposal so that it will inflict maximum political pain, or what he thinks will be maximum political pain, on the Democrats – by, among other things, forcing those who serve in Congress to vote to raise the debt ceiling. And who knows, it might work: Gaming out the possibilities is too complicated for me. But first McConnell must convince the rest of his party, particularly those who serve in the House of Representatives, to go along. And as of this writing that seems like it will be awfully difficult.

House Speaker John Boehner indicated he thought highly of McConnell’s proposal. But, these days, Boehner seems to have as much influence with the House Republican caucus as I do. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, on the other hand, is already moving on: He’s still pushing his version of a “medium” deficit reduction plan to go along with a debt ceiling hike. Rank-and-file Republicans say they want nothing to do with McConnell’s solution. A similar split is emerging in the media. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has blessed the proposal. But rabble rouser Erick Erickson, of Red State, quickly attacked the proposal as the “Pontius Pilate Pass the Buck Act of 2011.” 

All of this was predictable, as ABC’s Michael Falcone and Amy Walters note in this morning’s edition of “The Note”:

Back in 2010 when the Chamber of Commerce and other business-oriented groups were cheering for -- and helping to fund -- a GOP takeover of the House, they were warned to be careful what they wished for. These were not your father's Republicans, but a breed of anti-Washington, anti-establishment activists who weren't interested in the status quo or the agenda of the business elites. And, they've proven that this week. Despite the intentions of Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell to cut deals, the reality is that this GOP conference isn't going to be swayed by the "establishment" doom and gloom scenarios."

I’d go a bit farther. Boehner and McConnell were cheering and supporting the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010, just like the Chamber of Commerce was. Both men were happy to reap the political benefits, which in Boehner’s case meant the speaker’s chair and in McConnell's meant a chance to become majority leader soon. But now the two are paying the price: It turns out the extremists are not only extreme but also out of control. Observes Steve Benen:

We’re looking at the very real possibility that the top two Republicans in Congress — the Senate Minority Leader and the Speaker of the House — have no meaningful influence over how their caucuses resolve a crisis of their own making. 

It would be satisfying and, yes, a little entertaining to watch the Republican revolution consume the party’s leadership in this way, if only the stakes weren’t so high.