Republicans are struggling to devise a formula that simultaneously holds the president’s feet to the fire and yet escapes the charge that the GOP is playing Russian roulette with the country’s credit rating. As a practical matter I simply don’t think Republicans have the fortitude to hit the debt ceiling. To avoid the inevitable march-up-the-hill-down-the-hill routine there are two strategies (probably more) readily available.

President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

First, following the lead of Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in 2011, Republicans could pass legislation explicitly prohibiting default on our obligations and spelling out a sequence for paying our bills so that we don’t default on bond holders, stop Social Security checks or stiff the troops. However, this still might require shutting down other parts of the government, which the GOP has shown no stomach to do.

The other approach, the smartest I have seen so far, comes from Keith Hennessey, who explains that Republican leaders begin by “assuring [the president] that we will not allow the government to default on its obligations. The debt limit will be increased. The questions we must resolve are first, whether we will simultaneously cut government spending and second, who will cast the votes for the debt increase.” The Democrats then have a choice: either agree to significant entitlement reform in conjunction with a debt increase to get Obama through at least 2014 or the House Republicans will “deliver 50 Republican votes for a three-month clean extension. If they wish to avoid spending cuts, the president and [Minority] Leader [Nancy] Pelosi simply have to deliver the other 168 votes from House Democrats for a short-term clean extension.” Likewise in the Sen. Mitch McDonnell (R-Ky.) would not block a three-month extension but all votes would have to come from Democrats. The theory goes like this:

[T]his strategy would tell the President, “Hey, if you want your terrible policy, you’re going to have to deliver House Democratic votes for it. Good luck with that.” Either the President accepts and Republicans pound on the “Democratic debt limit increase” message every three months, or he agrees to cut spending. Either way, default risk is eliminated. Republicans will look responsible because they will be acting responsibly, and the markets couldn’t care less about which Members take political heat for casting these unpopular votes.

I would add that under no circumstances should the negotiations (if the president chooses to entertain real entitlement reform) be in secret and/or between Republican leaders and the president. It’s time for regular business, with all lawmakers forced to cast votes. Shifting the focus away from the White House is hugely important in avoiding a (losing ) PR battle with the president and might actually deliver results.

There may be other suggestions, but this seems to strike a balance between doing whatever is possible to cut entitlements while refusing to be responsible to the never-ending increase in spending. But what if the Democrats choose the multiple debt ceiling extensions and we never get to entitlement reform?

Here is the thing: The president really doesn’t want to cut spending and unless ready to throw the country into chaos (which even if advisable will never happen with Republicans) conservatives can’t make the president agree to cuts. The best they can do is make Democrats start voting and present the country with proof that only one party wants to reform entitlements.

A final word of advice: The Republicans should turn the president’s favorite class warfare game against him. He is the one defending Warren Buffett’s right to receive Social Security and free ride on Medicare; Republicans want to force rich people to pay more and get less so middle- and lower-income people have their benefits. Republicans may shy away from such arguments but unless the GOP captures the “fairness” argument and becomes the champion of the little guy, it will keep losing support and forever be outfoxed by the White House.