Until this week, Republicans had been threatening again to hold the nation's economy and credit rating hostage in yet another debt-ceiling crisis to leverage a new federal budget with deep cuts in social spending.
But on Wednesday Republicans wisely punted. Perhaps recalling how their 2011 debacle hurt the nation's credit rating and economy, House leaders said they would simply "suspend" the debt ceiling, until May, while Congress works toward a new budget.
That action implicitly suggests that Republicans wanted to avoid a new showdown with President Obama over the debt ceiling. He already had warned that he would not negotiate or mandate unwarranted cuts in earned entitlements and other safety net programs.
The surface technical question from their cave-in is whether the debt ceiling -- if it can be suspended so easily while federal spending runs over it -- is really the big legislative deal they've made it into since Obama replaced a free-spending, debt-ceiling-breaking Republican?
In this case, it's essential to remember that a Republican-controlled Congress casually raised the debt ceiling seven times while George W. Bush was doubling the federal debt to finance deep tax cuts and two costly wars. Part of the Obama debt is to pay for the lingering pipeline costs of those wars and for rebuilding the military's machinery. If debt-ceiling boundaries really are so flexible -- as they must be to pay for spending already approved by Congress in earlier years -- the debt ceiling mechanism should just be abandoned, and more intense focus placed on annual and long-term budgets.
In any case, the bipartisan 285-142 House vote to suspend the debt ceiling is welcome. It suggests Republicans recognize the economic message of the November election: That voters support a balanced approach to lowering federal debt, with tax reform aimed at closing bulldozer-sized loopholes in the tax code for businesses and corporations; and with measured cuts in federal spending on safety and social spending.
Congress must get to the core of that issue, with or without an artificial debt ceiling. The question now is whether and how the House budget process, driven by hard-right Republicans who want to disastrously chop Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a score of other vital services, can be reconciled with a Democratic-controlled Senate that has demanded a "balanced approach" between service-cuts and revenue-generating measures through tax reform.
This impasse is already three-years old. Senate Democrats have refused to present a budget without revenue increases since 2009, and reasonably so. Tax revenue has been at a near-record low of less than 16 percent of gross domestic product, well below the norm of 18.5 percent of GDP, since the Great Recession hit in 2008. If Republicans won't bargain on revenue increases, why should Senate Democrats bargain solely about austerity cuts in social services that would further damage the economy?
Both sides, however, now need to present a reasonable compromise. And the driver for that -- the budget sequesters mandated in 2011 for across-the-board cuts -- will arrive again in March. That leaves little time to waste, and no sense in putting off hard, detailed budget proposals from both sides.
Kicking this can down the road again makes no sense. It would be as meaningless as the "No budget, no pay" bill that Republican House members passed this week, despite the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that bars them from cutting their pay in the same session the legislation was passed. Such showboating must be replaced by substantive congressional action.