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Acting responsibly is not a 'surrender'

Republican PartyU.S. Debt CeilingU.S. Government Shutdown (2013)John BoehnerTea Party Movement

Unconditional surrender. That's what House Speaker John Boehner has called it if Republicans go along with President Barack Obama's position that the government shutdown must be halted and the debt limit raised before negotiations over their grievances can commence.

It's not difficult to see how he and his fire-breathing tea party allies might see it that way. Just as kidnappers don't normally release their hostages before the ransom demands are met, the hard-liners in the GOP believe this is the moment of maximum leverage when they can extract the most from their adversaries.

Mr. Obama has resisted so far because this is no way to run a government, and he's correct. As we've noted before, giving into this kind of strategy — forcing a costly shutdown of government (a $2 billion loss to the economy so far and counting) or worse, threatening to not pay its bills and potentially plunging the global economy back into recession because a faction within one political party can't unilaterally impose its will on the nation should not be rewarded.

But let's say the president recognizes that Republicans may just be crazy enough and politically self-destructive enough to refuse to let the full House vote on a clean continuing resolution or to raise the debt ceiling and agrees to sit down and bargain (assuming he can even deliver the votes of Senate Democrats). What exactly would that be like?

This, too, is not difficult to envision because Democrats and Republicans have had this conversation before. Right now, there are no — none, zero, nada — things Democrats want on the bargaining table, only items that Republicans desire: the defunding or delay of Obamacare and reductions in federal spending (exactly what that might entail is not clear) to name the two big ones, although the GOP's list is actually quite a bit longer.

So step one would have to be for the Democrats to offer their own position on federal spending, which, at least in the past, has included such things as raising taxes on the rich, removing loopholes from the tax code, and investing in job-creating infrastructure such as roads, transit and utilities. Many of these are strongly opposed by Republicans who merely see them as an expansion of government.

And, of course, if this group is actually serious about reducing the deficit, the two sides should acknowledge what has driven it up — the Bush era tax cuts, war-related spending in Iraq and Afghanistan and the recession. If they truly want to reduce that deficit, they'll have to look beyond discretionary spending and at the budget's most costly line items — entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

It doesn't take a genius to recognize that there are difficult and complex issues involved here. And if there's one thing we've all learned from the sequester madness, it's that the negotiators can't just settle on some across-the-board goal and expect to fill in specifics later. They'll have to come up with a detailed plan in one week.

Got that? Decide issues as thorny as the entire federal tax code and future Medicare benefits before the debt ceiling deadline of Oct. 17. These are issues that Congress has been unable to resolve in the past, but the thinking seems to be that everyone will perceive them much more clearly with a gun pointed at their collective heads.

We're guessing that the tea party will once again refuse anything that smacks of a tax increase, including tax reform. The only possible next step would be to give the negotiators some breathing space. Postpone the deadlines. Maintain the status quo. Put the gun down and ignore what is essentially an arbitrary deadline and crisis first promoted by Sen. Todd Cruz and his disciples on the right and now embraced by House leadership.

How would we do that? The only way possible: Pass a short-term spending plan and raise the debt ceiling to give negotiators some time to talk.

And that gets us back exactly to where we started. Mr. Boehner is wrong to think that funding the government and raising the debt limits are some kind of capitulation when, in reality, they are merely the minimum actions that are required of Congress no matter what one's views on Obamacare and the debt.

On the other hand, should the House GOP give ground and agree to talks under more reasonable terms, they may very well have strengthened their position. If the Democrats then fail to offer concessions, they'll look like the unreasonable ones, especially to swing voters who could hand Republicans a Senate majority in 2014. Yes, there will be dissent within the Republican Party over backing down from the economic precipice, but that's going to happen no matter what given that this strategy was doomed from the start.

Ultimately, what Mr. Boehner calls unconditional surrender might be a major victory for conservatives. And, of course, such compromise also offers this sweetener: It's also a course of action that doesn't plunge the nation into economic ruin.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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