Negotiate a debt deal now

President Obama has made the right move — a first in a long while — to begin negotiations with Republicans about the government shutdown and the coming debt-ceiling fight. As fruitless as GOP tactics have been up until this point, a dangerous game of flirting with default is now just days away and is not something the president can ignore.

It was been tempting for Democrats to sit back and enjoy the defiance and shortsightedness that allowed Republicans to walk straight into a government shutdown they can’t find their way out of. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has jammed House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), refused to offer any scraps of compromise and urged Obama to hold out on meeting with GOP leaders up until this point. Indeed, the shutdown is unpopular, Americans are blaming Republicans — even those who can’t stand ObamaCare — and approval of Republicans in Congress has never been lower. 

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But the debt ceiling must be increased, and no, the president cannot continue to pretend he “won’t negotiate” on the terms for passage. This will require a deal, and a deal gives something to both sides.

Obama should, if he hasn’t already, reflect on the blame he shared with Republicans for the debt-ceiling debacle of 2011. That trip to the precipice of default resulted in a credit rating downgrade, and Americans took a dim view of Obama’s leadership at the time, even as they faulted Republicans as well. 

Over this past week, public opinion has remained on Obama’s side. After all, as unfair as it might seem to keep a mandate for individuals and force them to buy healthcare when he has given businesses another year to comply with the Affordable Care Act, Obama is correct that shutting the government down over a bill that has already become law hardly seems reasonable to most people.

The latest Quinnipiac University poll showed that even opponents of the presidents’ healthcare law are against shutting down the government to defund it, by 72 percent. But a strong majority of Americans are opposed to a clean debt-ceiling increase and favor cuts to accompany it. Democrats don’t vote for clean debt ceilings either, so consensus must be reached. Obama doesn’t have to compromise on the Affordable Care Act, which is enacted law, but he must offer up real compromise on deficit reduction in exchange for more debt.

Of course, Boehner must prepare a compromise as well. He must finally picture the end and walk back from there. Can he agree to tax reform or Medicare cuts instead of a delay in the individual mandate? Does he let the three-dozen conservatives he has followed to a shutdown lead him to default? Does he hold to his old rule of dollar-for-dollar spending cuts in exchange for a debt-ceiling increase? Would he raise the debt ceiling without the defund crowd ?

It’s clear Boehner is currently operating without a strategy, which was bad enough for a government shutdown but unthinkable for a debt-ceiling debate that risks default. He must find one, just as Obama must be ready to deal. 

Negotiating on the debt ceiling is now a requirement. Each time our nation raises the amount of debt we can incur we must have a debate about solutions and the best path forward for our economic and fiscal health. Clearly in 2011 that debate failed, then a supercommittee on the debt failed, and then a sequester that everybody agreed was dangerous became our defining fiscal policy.

At this point it’s hard to imagine success. The idea of a fiscal grand bargain is now considered a relic. But it’s also worse to picture failure. Let’s hope Obama and GOP leaders don’t.


Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill. 

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