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McConnell’s escape hatch: The best Washington can do?

By Editorial,

REGARDING SENATE Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s backup plan to deal with the debt ceiling, we have a three-part reaction.

The first is to marvel at the scheme’s complexity and barely disguised political subtext: Call it Rube Goldberg meets Karl Rove.

The second is to breathe a sigh of relief that, however ungainly the potential solution, at least it offers an alternative to the economic disaster that could ensue if Congress tampers with America’s creditworthiness.

The third, and dominant, is to mourn the missed opportunity. If this moment could not yield a grand bargain or a even modest adjustment to the nation’s fiscal course, it is hard to imagine what will. An election is always around the corner. The political system is increasingly polarized. Meanwhile, the debt is dangerously swollen and still growing.

The McConnell approach is convoluted because it is intended to allow Republicans to avoid bringing down the U.S. economy without having to cast politically unpopular votes to raise the debt ceiling. Mr. McConnell proposes a series of maneuvers that would end up authorizing a $2.5 trillion increase in the debt limit, enough to take the country past the 2012 election. He contemplates that President Obama will seek an increase in three installments — $700 billion, $900 billion and $900 billion. Congress would have a chance to vote against each of these. The president would, presumably, veto those resolutions of disapproval and, presumably, enough Democrats would stand by him to uphold the vetoes.

Meanwhile, the president would have to specify — although he wouldn’t be required to implement — spending cuts equivalent to the amount of increase requested in the debt ceiling. It’s not hard to imagine Republicans putting this list of cuts to good political use. However, the political sting is softened by the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would not need the votes of the most endangered members of his caucus to sustain the president’s vetoes, which may explain some of his expressions of interest in the arrangement.

Is this, then, an escape route? Perhaps, although it’s far from clear it can pass in the House, where many Republican members oppose any lifting of the debt ceiling without enforceable budget cuts. The details of the agreement are still being hammered out. They bear watching to make certain the inelegant solution is workable — or worth the ultimate price.

Even then, no one who cares about the country’s future should cheer a non-solution solution to lifting the debt ceiling. The need to lift the ceiling was, and perhaps still could be, an opportunity to take at least some steps toward fiscal sanity. Mr. Obama was right to try, however late in the game, for a bargain combining new tax revenue with spending reductions, including to entitlement programs. That may be out of reach, but a down payment on fiscal responsibility — a balanced one, combining both tax increases and spending cuts — should not yet be ruled out.

The McConnell plan offers political cover for cowardice and irresponsibility. If it is the best Washington can do, it is better than nothing. But it’s not much of an advertisement for what Washington can do.

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