OPINION: Republicans will face peril if they hold the debt ceiling hostage

There appears to be a certain quality of self-immolation to the way the Republicans in Congress are approaching their legitimate effort to get the country’s — and the president’s — attention on the need to cut spending so we can reduce our massive debt and deficits.

One gets the feeling that many members of the party see political martyrdom as a means to progress on the honorable purpose of seeking fiscal responsibility.

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Unfortunately, the course they are considering will lead to little progress, a great number of self-inflicted wounds and a lot of glee on the other side of the aisle.

The “fiscal cliff” experience should have shown the House Republicans that taking a hostage you cannot shoot is not a good tactic.

In the fiscal-cliff drama, it led to the opposite result from what Republicans wanted. They ended up having to pass a bill that did not cut spending and raised taxes.

They ran themselves up a boxed canyon, being chased by the likes of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and David Axelrod. It was a bad day.

Now the same folks are claiming that as a matter of primal rights they should take the debt ceiling hostage.

There seems to be some belief that this will show their seriousness of purpose, that it will get the people’s and the president’s attention focused on the need to rein in entitlement spending, specifically.

The opposite will occur.

Taking this hostage gives the president and his minions in the press the opportunity to move the debate away from spending and into the arena of claiming Republicans are irresponsible and dysfunctional.

The issue will become defaulting on the nation’s debt and not sending out Social Security checks.

The threat and possible execution of not paying Social Security because the debt ceiling is not extended is the ultimate political weapon, one the Democratic leadership will not hesitate to use.

Republican House members can spend all day going to the well and making one-minute speeches decrying the failure of the president and his party to address spending, and claiming it is they who have endangered Social Security. But they will not be heard.

The president has the bully pulpit.

He has the amplification of a fawning press corps. He will blame House Republicans — and it will stick.

Seniors will be rightly outraged that they might not get their checks, which many need to live on, and the country will be outraged at the ineptness of it all.

It will be ugly.

In the end, which will come rather quickly, Republicans will fold like the Red Sox in September and accept a debt-ceiling increase. Most likely, they will get nothing for it. They will have once again, in the name of purity, chosen a path up a boxed canyon. This time the level of citizen ire, especially among seniors, may be such that it will be a political massacre.

This, of course, is not necessary.

The much better hostage is the sequester.

A battle over whether to allow the sequester to go forward is by definition a battle over restraining spending.

It is exactly what the president and his party do not want to talk about — and exactly what Republicans should be talking about.

Yes, it affects defense. But it affects programs that are extremely important to liberals also, and in a more immediate way.

There is no stomach on the left for a sequester.

It is a big number, $1.2 trillion, and any agreement to abate it is almost certainly going to have to involve serious entitlement reform, which is exactly what needs to be on the table in this next round of brinkmanship over fiscal policy.

Picking the right canyon to ride into will be the test of whether those in the Republican Congress come out of this next round with what could be significant progress on controlling spending, or just another political debacle where no progress is made on getting our fiscal house in order.

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations.