The top Republican in the Senate proposed on Tuesday giving President Barack Obama sweeping new power to, in effect, unilaterally increase the nation's debt limit to avoid a first-ever default on U.S. obligations.
The new mechanism would take the place of the current White House debt negotiations among congressional leaders and Obama. Those talks over spending cuts and tax increases have grown increasingly acrimonious.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered a new plan to allow the president to demand up to $2.4 trillion in new borrowing authority by the summer of next year in three separate submissions.
Those increases in the so-called debt limit would automatically take effect unless both the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic Senate enact legislation specifically disapproving it.
Obama would be able to veto such legislation. McConnell said he reluctantly offered the unusual proposal because it has become clear the negotiations with Obama are not going anywhere.
The Republican plan would require that Obama submit spending cuts along with his borrowing requests. But unlike the increase in the debt limit, they wouldn't automatically take effect.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he had spoken briefly to McConnell about the idea and said he would consider it.
The sweeping new power would only be in effect through the remainder of Obama's term, which ends January 2013.
McConnell's plan would permit an immediate increase in the debt limit of $100 billion while Congress debates whether to disapprove of it.
An Aug. 2 deadline looms for Congress to raise the country's debt limit. Republicans are insisting on major budget cuts to reduce the swollen deficit. Obama and his fellow Democrats are also offering budget cuts but in tandem with tax increases that the Republicans say they won't support.
Both Democratic and Republican leaders agree the U.S. shouldn't be allowed to default on its obligations, which could skyrocket interest rates, send stock markets plunging and shatter faith in the world's No. 1 economy. The showdown comes as Obama and lawmakers head into next year's presidential and congressional elections.
McConnell offered the plan just a couple of hours before he was scheduled to go to the White House for the third round of budget talks in as many days.
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"I had hoped all year long that the opportunity presented by his request of us to raises the debt ceiling would generate a bipartisan agreement that would begin to get our house in order," McConnell said. "I still hope it will. But we're certainly not going to send a signal to the markets and the American people that default is an option."
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other market experts have issued dire warnings of the effect a potential default would have on the still-struggling economy, including a downgrade in the government's AAA bond rating, higher interest rates and panic in financial markets here and abroad. Obama himself warned in a CBS News interview that he couldn't guarantee that government pension plan payments would go out as scheduled on Aug. 3.
An aide to House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, said Boehner shares McConnell's concerns about the lack of progress in the talks. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican, said Cantor feels that the McConnell proposal could be helpful.