The current row over who's to blame for the latest government showdown brings to mind the story of the two men arguing on a street corner whether the world is round or flat. They agree to ask an amiable passer-by to settle the matter.
He ponders the question for a moment, then tells them: "Among men of good will, the truth must surely lie somewhere in between." That's about the way it is among all those casual onlookers who insist both sides in the fight must share the blame for the stalemate.
Any sober and dispassionate examination should yield the indisputable conclusion that two separate issues are at stake: passing the required legislation to keep the government open and pay its legitimate bills, and deciding whether to defund President Obama's controversial health care reform act.
The first is a national obligation enshrined in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, directing Congress "to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States." That's key job of the federal legislators regardless of party affiliation or other considerations.
The second is essentially a partisan effort to deny funds for a law duly enacted by Congress itself, as instructed in Section 7.
That's the regular procedure the House Republicans want to bypass in an open attempt at extortion of Obama, who is determined to protect the hard-won and single most prominent legislative domestic achievement of his presidency. The two issues should and deserve to be addressed separately.
The president and his fellow Democrats in Congress are rightly insisting that they be so handled, Congress first doing its assigned duty to provide the money required to pay the government's legitimate bills for services and acquisitions already authorized by the legislative branch.
Only then, as Obama has offered, will the executive branch entertain demands from the House Republicans that the health-care insurance law be amended or even scrapped, in the regular order of doing legislative business on Capitol Hill. This is the valid procedure that no manner of opponents' obfuscation or arrogance can erase.
It should not be necessary to spell out how the White House and Congress are instructed by the Constitution to get the people's business done. Yet a relative handful of the most conservative Republicans, in their zeal to defund and derail what they relish calling "Obamacare," argue that the regular order be set aside in this instance.
They base their insistence on public opinion polls, repeatedly trumpeted by this handful and ultraconservative radio and television talk show allies, that the American people want no part of the president's "socialist" medical plan. But it's the law of the land that he is instructed to enforce by the same Constitution, and he is attempting to do so now, albeit with start-up glitches and delays.
Although the Republican hardliners in the House, and their self-appointed cheerleader from the Senate, Ted Cruz of Texas, are digging in, some reasonable GOP congressmen such as Charles Dent of Pennsylvania have recognized their first responsibility to keep the government running and are looking for an escape hatch from their party's self-destructive position.
The embattled House Speaker John Boehner, while trying to hold his tea party recalcitrants in harness, has been reported through a spokesman as insisting that the government will not be allowed to default on its debts. The deadline for Congress to raise the federal debt limit has been set for Oct. 17, with the shutdown widely predicted now to last at least until then.
So most Republicans on Capitol Hill face a decision as to how long they intend to be cast by a substantial number of voters as the villains in a fight they surely seem destined to lose in the end. The level heads among them should urge Boehner to cut his losses soon and allow the House to vote, up or down, on whether to pay the government's bills, and then get the rest of the government, and millions of affected voters, back to work.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.