When a government shutdown enters its third week, the United States is two days from defaulting on some of its obligations and markets around the world begin to show signs of panic, it's time to take “yes” for an answer.
This advice is especially germane to House Republicans as the budget showdown enters its final face-saving and horse- trading stages. The Senate leadership has cobbled together a budget deal that, while wholly unsatisfactory from a fiscal- policy standpoint, at least avoids economic catastrophe. Speaker John Boehner should allow the package to come to the floor, where it stands a very good chance of passage, so we can all move on to the next chapter in this crisis.
The Senate deal, worked out between Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, would reopen the government by funding it through Jan. 15 and extend borrowing authority to Feb. 7. It includes two minor Affordable Care Act- related proposals, one favored by labor (delaying a tax on groups that fund their health-care benefits by self-insuring) and one favored by House Republicans (requiring individuals who seek a federal insurance subsidy to document their incomes).
The Senate offer would try to prevent another round of shutdowns and default threats by imposing a mid-December deadline for the two sides to draw up a true budget that replaces the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.
Sound reasonable? Or at least acceptable? To most lawmakers, yes. But not to the Ted Cruz faction of the Republican Party. The Texas senator, who met with about 20 House Republicans last night to plot strategy, has reverted to his default position of trying to destroy Obamacare.
The latest ultimatum from House Republicans amounts to a confused and confusing demand that lawmakers eliminate employer- based health-care contributions for themselves, the president and his Cabinet. They also want to strengthen their leverage in any future battles over the debt limit by barring the Treasury Department from using so-called extraordinary measures to postpone hitting the ceiling.
Both provisions are bad policy and bad politics. It's not enough, however, to just say “no.” In their place, President Barack Obama could offer to delay the $3 billion-a-year medical- device tax that partially funds the health-care law (and that some in his own party would like to ditch). Let Republicans claim Obama broke down and negotiated over the debt limit despite his vow not to. They are getting precious little in return.
In the meantime, the costs of their actions are mounting. The shutdown has reduced economic output by billions of dollars, lowered tax revenue and worsened the deficit. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all: Short-term U.S. Treasuries have gone from haven to risky instrument — one that banks and fund managers are dumping as fast as they can.
The political repercussions are disastrous, too. The public blames congressional Republicans far more than they do Obama or congressional Democrats for Washington's absurd behavior. Not only have Republicans failed to defund or delay the health-care law, but their clumsy tactics have improved Obamacare's image — flawed startup and all — and ruined their party's chances of adding Senate seats in 2014.
The speaker faces a choice between his obligations to the country and the Constitution and the narrower goals of the tea party. He would do well to take a cue from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican from Alaska who beat back a tea party challenger in 2010. “Politics be damned,” she declared in explaining her support for a compromise Senate deal. Boehner should be so brave.