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GOP offer on debt ceiling may make Democrats be the grown-ups

How much do Democrats want to reopen the government? Enough to keep playing chicken on the debt limit?

That's the gist of the latest gambit by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and the rest of the chamber's GOP leadership. At a news conference Thursday, they said they would be willing to lift the debt limit for six weeks with only one string attached: Democrats would have to agree to negotiate with Republicans over the latters' fiscal concerns.

Oh, and yes, the shutdown would continue in the meantime.

That's where the quandary comes in for Democrats. President Obama has said he would sign a "clean" bill to raise the debt limit, even if it provided only a few weeks of relief. But news reports Thursday afternoon suggested that the House leadership wasn't offering an unconditional increase. Instead, the temporary suspension of the debt limit was tied to negotiations over the shutdown. Nor is it likely that tea party-affiliated House Republicans would support a clean debt-limit bill.

Still, the offer suggests that the GOP is willing to make the first significant concession in the fiscal crisis. Instead of hanging two swords over Washington's head, it's content to hang just one.

To Slate's Matthew Yglesias, Boehner's offer is a meaningless feint. What really needs to happen, he wrote Thursday, is for mainstream Republicans to stop going along with their uncompromising tea party brethren and turn their attention instead to cutting a longer-term deal with Democrats that reopens the government and raises the debt ceiling.

Yet Democrats seem to understand far better than the supposedly business-oriented Republicans what would happen to the economy if the debt limit isn't lifted in time to avoid the government stiffing some of its creditors. So Boehner is presenting them a Hobson's choice. They can agree to suspend the debt limit for a few weeks and negotiate the GOP's fiscal issues (the 2010 healthcare law presumably among them) before reopening the government. Or they can stick to their current position and hope Republicans agree to lift the debt ceiling unconditionally before the Oct. 17 deadline, despite the many indications that they won't.

As Obama and top congressional Democrats have said over and over, it's irresponsible (or worse) even to contemplate not raising the debt limit. After all, the limit has nothing to do with how much Congress spends; it only affects the country's ability to pay its bills. But having drawn that line in the sand, Democrats would seem to be compelled to take even an unattractive offer to raise the debt limit, simply because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey and Google+

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