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Avoiding a potential train wreck over government finances

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

With President Obama’s bid for congressional support for a military strike against Syria on hold for the time being, members of the House and Senate can devote their attention to what was previously supposed to have been their priority for September – avoiding a potential political and economic train wreck over the federal government’s finances.

Specifically, Congress needs to fund the government after the current spending law expires Sept. 30, and it needs to raise the $16.7 trillion debt limit, which will be reached sometime in the second half of October, and which must be increased to avoid the possibility of a U.S. default.

Alas, these two pieces of what should be routine business have become entangled in the politics of Obamacare, which is to say the decreasingly comprehensible politics of the House Republican caucus. A sizable minority of GOP members insists on “defunding” the health care law before the major parts of it begin to take effect in January. According to a recent Congressional Research Service analysis, this is an operationally futile goal. It would be bad policy even if it were possible.

What’s more, it’s bad politics for the GOP to risk a government shutdown in pursuit of this chimera – a fact Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, recognizes but which has, so far, failed to sway his back-benchers. This is why Democrats are content, for now, to sit back and cheer on the Republicans’ internal feud. Also, that’s easier than countering the Republicans’ anti-Obamacare crusade with realistic budget alternatives.

How this latest impasse plays out is anyone’s guess, although there are plausible scenarios under which Boehner can give the ultras in his caucus a chance to vote one more time against Obamacare, while engineering Democratic acquiescence in a short-term continuation of the current $988 billion annual spending rate. Such a result would avoid a partial government shutdown – for a few months.

The debt ceiling, too, probably can be finessed, as it has been in the past. Exactly how is admittedly difficult to predict given Obama’s insistence that raising it is not negotiable and Boehner’s seemingly incompatible insistence that he won’t increase Washington’s borrowing capacity except in return for progress on deficit reduction. But a default would not be in either side’s political interest.

The only outcome no one expects is a “grand bargain,” or even a small one, that addresses the country’s accumulating fundamental problems. These include a budget sequester that indiscriminately weakens defense and key domestic programs, a long-term mismatch between planned entitlement-driven spending and expected tax revenue and the dysfunctional legislative process itself.

Washington may yet limp through another round of budgetary chaos – but only at the cost of postponing the people’s truly urgent business to an even more distant date in the uncertain future.

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