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Budget gamesmanship

Saturday, March 12, 2011; 6:40 PM

DEMONSTRATING ITS limitless capacity for wrangling over the trivial while letting serious problems fester, Congress has spent weeks fighting over a sliver of the budget problem. Republicans want to cut spending by $61 billion for the fiscal year that's already almost half over. Senate Democrats countered with proposed cuts of $10 billion. The distance narrowed further Friday when the House proposed another three-week stopgap measure containing another $6 billion in cuts.

The squabble over the remaining $45 billion is almost entirely beside the point as a matter of fiscal responsibility. Lurching from one continuing resolution to another, with the threat of shutdown looming, is the epitome of bad government. Neither side has the votes to see its proposal enacted, as Wednesday's Senate votes showed; neither side could assemble even a simple majority, never mind the 60 votes that would be needed to overcome the threat of a filibuster. The quicker the two sides can come to "a reasonable middle ground," as Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew put it, the better. Whatever number is the ultimate resolution of the quarrel over non-security discretionary spending, a 12 percent slice of the budget pie, the truly serious work of deficit reduction lies ahead.

The dispute may come down to the extraneous, odious riders House Republicans want to incorporate into the spending measure - from barring federal funds from going to Planned Parenthood to stopping the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. If Republicans want to show they are serious about cutting spending, they should not use the budget as a vehicle for policymaking.

Washington is embroiled in a game of budgetary hot potato. The White House wants congressional Republicans to tip their hand - and expose themselves to political risk - on entitlement reform. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was on MSNBC Thursday calling for presidential leadership - leadership, that is, from the president whose ouster Mr. McConnell has said is his top priority. If both sides are paranoid, perhaps it's because the other is out to get them. Meantime, some Senate Democrats, most notably Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), call for broadening the field of debate, expanding the universe of potential savings beyond the discretionary budget to include changes in mandatory programs (which encompass everything from farm subsidies to Medicare) as well as - gasp! - revenue increases.

This "reset," as Mr. Schumer called it, is necessary in the long term; less obvious is that it is feasible for addressing spending for the remaining half a year. The senator would have more credibility had he not just been pressing to make Social Security off-limits for any cuts in the serious, parallel bipartisan negotiations over a debt reduction package. The White House, which did not exactly race to embrace Mr. Schumer's vision, would have more credibility if its approach to entitlement reform did not boil down to saying "after you, Alphonse," to House Republicans.

House Republicans have said they will "lead with our chin," as Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) put it, and propose specific entitlement cuts. Mr. Obama said Friday that once the remaining 2011 budget is set, "it's going to be important for us to have a conversation . . . about how do we really tackle the problem in a comprehensive way . . . we've got to make sure that we're tackling defense spending; we're tackling tax expenditures and tax loopholes; that we're tackling entitlements; and that we're thinking about how do we really get our arms around those things . . . driving the debt and deficit." As the president knows, it will take a lot more than "conversation."

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