A reopening, for now, of government, a postponement for a few months of a possible default on federal debts, a promise to negotiate again over fiscal disagreements — in a rational, functional world, these meager accomplishments would not be cause for celebration. In today’s Washington, they would count as achievements.
The partial government shutdown has extended two weeks, at great loss to many federal workers, contractors and people who depend on their service. By week’s end the Treasury may be unable to pay all its bills if Congress does not vote to lift the debt ceiling. That would be immensely damaging to the United States’ reputation and, potentially, to its economy.
Aiming to heal these self-inflicted wounds, Senate leaders Harry M. Reid, D-Nev., and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took charge Monday of faltering negotiations. Under the circumstances, their goals were understandably modest: Find a formula to avert catastrophe that both a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House would approve. Then it would be up to House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to let his full chamber take a vote, even if the most extreme members of his caucus object.
The country is in a mess because Republicans overestimated their ability to shape events in a divided government. They thought they could derail the Affordable Care Act. It was never going to happen. Now they — or at least some of them — are looking for a face-saving way out.
Some Democrats are tempted to deny the GOP that exit. The GOP’s approval ratings have plummeted, and Democrats are smelling a chance to keep control of the Senate and retake the House in 2014. But there are political risks in overplaying a strong hand. If Democrats are perceived to be cavalier about the danger of default, they in their turn will pay a political price, as they should.
The “grand bargain” on taxes and spending that many in Washington once hoped for is almost surely beyond reach; the personal animosities and ideological divisions are too deep. But modest progress over the coming weeks is possible. If the main outcome of the crisis is to suspend the medical-device tax or other health care revenue measures, Washington will have proved only that making the deficit worse remains its basis for bipartisan agreement. Instead negotiators should aim, in talks after the government reopens, to ease the next round of sequester-mandated budget cuts, which otherwise will do severe harm to national defense, education, infrastructure and other priorities. If they pay for the restored spending with longer-term, more rational reductions to entitlement programs, aimed especially at higher-income beneficiaries, two birds will have been felled with one stone.
Routing the enemy is a tempting vision for ideologues on both sides, but it is a mirage. In a country so sharply divided, there can be no final victories, only incremental wins leading to future battles. With all too imaginable miscalculation, however, there could be overwhelming defeat — for the nation. To the extent that leaders step away from that brink, there would be cause, if not for rejoicing, at least for relief.