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Debt-ceiling sanity is now in the Senate’s hands

WHILE THE CLOCK ticked, Congress fiddled another day away Friday. Republicans and Democrats, representatives and senators, is this really what you went to Washington for? Surely you did not seek elective office believing that, once in power, you would be able to achieve everything you wanted, entirely on your own terms. If not, this is the time to consider the contours of compromise.

To whom is this plea addressed? Most immediately, Republican senators — the kind of Republican senators who were attracted to the Gang of Six proposal. In the end, it will be essential to assemble a bipartisan House majority to lift the ceiling. But sanity will start, if it does, in the Senate. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) asserted Thursday that it is time to “end this crisis,” but it is a crisis, at this point, of his party’s creation.

Here’s the situation: The House measure cannot and will not pass the Senate; nor should it. It would, among other flaws, subject the country to another punishing and humiliating replay of the debt debate six months from now. It is a fine idea to have a two-step process in which some cuts are agreed on now and a supercommittee is established to find more savings down the road. It is a dangerous idea to harness the outcome of that committee’s work to the further lifting of the debt ceiling. It invites ever more rounds of government by hostage-taking.

That leaves the Senate, with the straitjacket of its cumbersome procedures that eat up precious time. Given that the House measure is dead on arrival, the focus then shifts to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). Can the leader craft a compromise, two-step measure that would bring enough Republicans on board to get past the 60-vote hurdle? The Gang of Six sympathizers ought to be amenable to the notion of a supercommittee to come up with additional savings.

How much in savings? We repeat: There is no rational basis for insisting on a dollar of savings for every dollar increase in the debt ceiling. The Gang of Sixers should be willing to accept an enforcement mechanism — a set of fiscal measures that will be triggered if a second round of savings is not adopted — that reflects the fundamental wisdom of the Gang of Six and every commission that has preceded it. That is that the debt problem can only be resolved with a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases.

The devil will be in the details of this trigger — in creating, as President Obama said Friday, one that is “smart and balanced.” The checkered history of these efforts teaches that the enforcement mechanism cannot be so dire that no one is willing to implement it. At the same time, it cannot be so lopsided that one side is eager for a standoff and ultimate trigger-pulling. In short, an effective trigger must involve shared pain that would be unpleasant but not unendurable. A cuts-only trigger would be ill advised for the reason set out above — it gives one side an outsize incentive for recalcitrance — but the potential harm of a cuts-only trigger depends in part on the size of the cuts involved. It also depends on the content: Previous triggers have been crafted to spare low-income entitlement programs from arbitrary cuts that could be devastating to the most vulnerable Americans.

The more immediate trigger is the gun to the head of the nation’s economy. That makes for a dangerous atmosphere in which to conduct negotiations but one in which, we continue to hope, enough clear-thinking lawmakers will conclude that the time for compromise is now.

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