Budget battle rejoined

As concern over the August chemical attack in Syria heated up and the U.S. was plunged into a debate over the use of military force to punish Syria for its use of internationally banned weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, House leaders wisely indicated that the ongoing standoff over the federal budget and defunding Obamacare — and the real possibility of a government shutdown — would have to be postponed.

A stopgap bill, something to keep the government running past the end of the fiscal year on October 1 and into mid-December, was the choice of House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The nation breathed a sigh of relief. GOP leaders demonstrated that they could put the national interest first — and recognized that the timing for a budget showdown was terrible.

Seems someone forgot to tell their fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives.

That short-term funding bill, which was supposed to be wrapped up by today, is getting pushed into next week. Apparently, the two leaders couldn't get the votes to pass it as the chamber's tea party wing is not so anxious to be reasonable. Worse, there are indications that even the stop-gap measure will have to cut off funding for health care reform to pass muster with tea party conservatives.

That's a non-starter, of course. The American people know it. House leaders know it (passing various anti-Obamacare bills dozens of times to no effect has provided some teachable moments). But the far-right faction that continues to prove itself the bane of Mr. Boehner's existence won't accept political realities so easily.

This leaves the real possibility that the divided caucus may not be able to pass a bill that will keep the government functioning. As outrageous as shutting down the government sounds, many of these ardent opponents of President Barack Obama's signature health care reform bill appear content with that prospect.

Oh, and while they're at it, the right-wing isn't all that interested in making sure the U.S. doesn't default on its debts either. Never mind that such a standoff is likely to be ruinous for the nation's economy, raise unemployment, cause the markets to go into a tailspin and put the nation on the road back to recession.

Consider the irony that a temporary peace made possible by Russian President Valdimir Putin's apparent willingness to play the diplomat with Syria may reignite the budget wars in Washington. Military strikes may be temporarily off the table, but not Congressional strikes on Social Security, Medicare, the Pentagon and a host of other vital government programs.

This is madness. If Republicans want to address the nation's debt they ought to do so rationally by negotiating a comprehensive approach with Democrats that would involve both a commitment to long-term spending reductions and to tax reform that eliminates some of the worst loopholes and avoidance schemes.

That's what most economists favor. That's what the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission advocated. That's what the American people support. But every time a modest reform is offered (such as reducing the corporate tax rate in return for closing loopholes that allow big companies to shield profits overseas), the GOP's naysayers want something more comprehensive. And each time a more comprehensive approach is tried, it quickly falls apart over taxes, and we end up with failed strategies like the federal sequester.

The best thing the debt-reduction effort has going for it right now is the economic recovery that's reduced the annual budget deficit all by itself. If we kill that with a government shutdown, what's left? Do even the most rebellious in the House GOP believe the public will be happy when the entitlement program checks are no longer in the mail?

It's time House Republicans accepted that Obamacare is moving forward with or without their support. If the American people are all that unhappy with health insurance coverage for millions of people who are currently uninsured and the other benefits of the reform law, they can express themselves at the ballot box. They had that chance last year, and they'll have it again next year and in 2016. That's how our democracy works.

In the meantime, it would behoove House Republicans to recognize that their partisan wrangling and posturing has harsh consequences for ordinary people. Even the threat of default can hit financial markets hard and raise the cost of borrowing, which, in turn, could cost jobs. If the federal government shuts down, nobody wins.

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