House Republicans deserve credit for their decision to vote Wednesday on a temporary increase in the debt ceiling that doesn’t also include the demand that the increase be matched by spending cuts.
Dropping that controversial demand was wise; it had been as much politically calculated as practical, and it couldn’t hold up against President Barack Obama’s refusal to allow the nation not to pay bills already run up. The impact of a potential default is not known precisely, but it is almost universally regarded as sharply negative, possibly even resulting in renewed recession.
House Republicans aren’t, however, making this gesture out of the kindness of their hearts. In return for allowing the government to continue borrowing money until mid-May, they expect the Senate to approve a budget resolution. That seems reasonable enough. After all, the Senate has failed to do so for the better part of four years. Also, if either chamber fails to meet the budget deadline of April 15, lawmakers’ pay would be withheld until they do. That penalty doesn’t mean much for most lawmakers, though, because they’ll get their pay next January even if they don’t approve budgets..
Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said that would not be a problem, but noted that the Senate budget would call for tax increases. That, of course, is at odds with recent budgets approved by House Republicans, which have relied solely on spending cuts.
Whether Republicans can succeed completely is questionable, but their call for spending cuts, especially as regards entitlement spending, is valid. Even rational Democrats recognize that Social Security and particularly Medicare cannot remain solvent indefinitely without structural reform. President Obama also recognizes it, although he indicated strong support for the programs during his inaugural address.
Although Republicans have dropped their debt ceiling demand, they are not without leverage. Lawmakers face other important deadlines: March 1, when massive cuts in both defense and domestic spending are scheduled to occur and March 29, when the current continuing resolution runs out.
There is no assurance that the House’s decision to vote Wednesday on the debt ceiling will bring the two sides closer together. Nor by itself does it give financial markets much reason for confidence that a long-term solution is at hand. Mostly what the House action does is soften one extreme position and give members of both parties a little more time to resolve very real differences.
It may help, but it also brings lawmakers closer to the moment of truth that they’ve been unable for so long to confront.