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Editorial: High-stakes debt poker

Congress, there you go again. Two weeks after leaders in Washington patched together an ugly compromise on national finance, Republicans who control the House are signaling they are willing to reprise the madness of the 2011 debt-ceiling fight. No increase in the limit, they say, without spending cuts.

What comes after gridlock? It may be cardiac arrest for an economy that has a pretty weak ticker these days.

President Obama was entirely correct Monday to stare down Republican attempts to connect the need to raise the borrowing limit with the party’s ever-present wish to cut the size of government. The GOP is for any reductions except the automatic deep spending cuts to the military it agreed to as part of the compromise neither party wanted to see come about. The pact was postponed in New Year’s negotiations that brought higher tax rates for some upper-income Americans as well as the end of the temporary break all working people received on their payroll taxes.

“Absurd” and “irresponsible” were the president’s words Monday in describing the Republican stance.

While most of us like a little mystery in our lives, we are revolted by the prospect of counting our way down to seeing the country hit the current $16.4 trillion debt ceiling, with breathless updates on cable news and ponderous utterances from Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner about what the American people want.

The people do not want them playing games with the world’s largest economy. They affirmed that by re-electing Obama in November.

The Treasury Department said Monday that unless the borrowing limit is adjusted, the country will default on its financial obligations by the middle of next month or in early March.

The president, in what was likely his last news conference of his first term, likened the GOP stance to seeking a ransom for not harming the American economy. “What I will not do,” the president said Monday, “is to have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people.” He expressed a willingness to find ways to reduce the budget deficit that forces our government to keep borrowing, but said that must be a separate discussion and should include revenue increases as well as program cuts.

To the true believers and ideologues on the right, anything that weakens government is a check mark in the win column. That view ignores the damage headed our way if Congress is able to use its authority over financial matters to injure the government’s financial soundness. It also ignores the fact that payments subject to default fulfill this country’s promise to lenders to pay for things that Congress has already approved.

Not a small part of that are obligations stemming from two long wars both parties agreed to support.

Granted, the president’s pledge not to make the debt-ceiling change a bargaining chip is itself a strategic move. If he is successful, he will weaken the resolve of top Republicans in Congress to engage in this high-stakes gamble.

We applaud him for standing firm on this question and speaking out, after spending too much time in his first term maneuvering behind the scenes. The president is right in saying that if Congress does not lift the borrowing limit, people will blame the government as a whole for not taking care of business.

They’d be half right, for the blame shouldn’t be spread around equally. Though we have a new Congress, its leaders remain and seem to be carrying forward the obstructionist ways of the 112th session.

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