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Warren Fiske
By Warren Fiske July 29, 2011

Cantor says Reid debt proposal gives "blank check" to Obama

In a recent television interview, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor boldly predicted that Republicans in his chamber would unite to pass Speaker John Boehner’s plan to lift the nation’s debt ceiling.

Cantor, R-7th, said House Republicans were concluding that Boehner’s plan is their best option to cut federal spending while ensuring, at least temporarily, that the U.S. continues to pay back its loans.

Cantor dismissed as "unacceptable" the option of not increasing the $14.3 trillion debt limit by Aug. 2, when the nation will start running short of funds to pay its obligations. He was scornful of a proposal by Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to raise the debt limit.

"Harry Reid’s plan is basically giving the president a blank check, giving him what he wants, a blind increase of the debt ceiling to spend the money the way he wants," Cantor said during a July 26 interview on Fox News.

We wondered whether Reid’s plan really would present President Barack Obama a blank check -- a claim repeatedly made by Cantor and Boehner.  

First, a little background. Reid’s proposal would raise the debt ceiling by $2.7 trillion, enough to last until 2013. Boehner’s two-step plan would allow the limit to increase by $900 billion now and force Obama to seek a second hike before next year’s elections.

Both proposals claim to cut spending by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. Neither plan seeks a tax increase. Boehner would require Congress to vote on a balanced budget amendment; Reid would not.

We asked asked Megan Whittemore, Cantor’s deputy press secretary, to explain the majority leader’s factual basis for calling Reid’s plan "a blank check" for Obama.

"We are confident that your readers will understand the common meaning of the metaphor of a `blank check,’" she e-mailed back to us. "However, to help you along we first turn to in the grammar section where you will find the following helpful."

Whittemore pasted in a three-paragraph definition that began, "A figure of speech is a rhetorical device that achieves a special effect by using words in distinctive ways." It said, among other things, that sometimes people rely on "hyperbole to emphasize a point (`I’m starving!’)."

She also sent us two definitions of "blank check." One, by, defines it as "unrestricted authority; a free hand."  Another, by Wikipedia, says blank check "in the figurative or metaphoric sense, is used (especially in politics) to describe a situation in which an agreement had been made that is open-ended or vague, and therefore subject to abuse."

Whittemore noted that Boehner’s two-step plan would require Congress to hit spending-cut goals before Obama could ask Congress for the second increase in the debt. That, Republicans say, would put more pressure on Washington to reduce spending than Reid’s proposal, which would allow a larger, longer-lasting hike in the debt cap.

We ran Cantor’s "blank check" analogy by four Washington policy analysts who are closely watching the debt ceiling debate. They were all perplexed by the statement and pointed out a simple reason why Reid’s plan would not give Obama carte blanche: Under the U.S. Constitution, only Congress can appropriate money.

"Congress has to authorize new spending and changes in taxation," said Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "The president can sign or veto those bills. He can’t do anything without congressional authority."

Ornstein added, "Cantor is being totally, deliberately misleading."

Steve Ellis, vice-president of the non-partisan Taxpayers for Common Sense, had a similar take. "Rep. Cantor’s comment isn’t really correct," he said.

We were also given a second reason why Cantor’s statement is inaccurate: Raising the debt limit will pay for past obligations made by the U.S. government, not new ones.

"The need to raise the debt limit is a factor of past spending and tax decision (in addition to the recent economic downturn) enacted by previous congresses and presidents pushing borrowing needs up," said Jason Peuquet, an analyst with the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a middle-of-the-road, budget-hawk group.

Let’s review:

Cantor said Senate Majority Leader Reid’s proposal to raise the debt ceiling would be "basically giving the president a blank check, giving him what he wants, a blind increase of the debt ceiling to spend the money the way he wants."

A number of policy analysts told us Cantor’s statement is simply incorrect. Only Congress can appropriate money. Obama can only spend what he’s given. Reid’s plan does not change that constitutional requirement.

Cantor’s office failed to provide a single fact to back the Republican’s contention that Reid’s proposal would give the president a free hand in spending. Cantor’s spokeswoman said he was speaking metaphorically and people understand that. We find that logic hard to accept, particularly at a time of great public divide when the financial integrity of the nation is at stake.

We rate Cantor’s statement False.

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Our Sources

Fox News, Cantor: Obama;s "Playing Bully Politics" and "We’re Calling His Bluff," July 26, 2011.

Email interview with Megan Whittemore, Deputy press secretary for Rep. Eric Cantor, July 27, 2011.

The Washington Post, "The two plans," July 27, 2011.

Email interview with Norman J. Ornstein, political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute, July 28, 2011.

Email interview with Steve Eliis, vice-president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, July 28, 2011.

Email interview with Donald Wolfensberger, director of The Congress Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, July 28, 2011.
Email interview with Jason Peuquet, policy analyst, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, July 28, 2011.

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