The government shutdown is into its second week, and a lot of folks are suffering. If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling by next week, the federal government will find itself unable to pay all its bills, with potentially dire consequences.
President Obama says he will not negotiate with Republicans in Congress until and unless they reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. It's a matter of principle, he says: If they are rewarded for brinkmanship, they will hold the country hostage again and again. In an op-ed for The Post, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., agrees, saying that a matter of principle is at stake. Obama has been "continually thwarting the will of Congress," Cantor writes. "This must end."
With both sides claiming the moral high ground and defending constitutional prerogatives, compromise becomes increasingly difficult to envisage. On the other hand, the consequences of a failure to compromise default are unacceptable. Stalemate could drive the country and the world back into recession, send the U.S. deficit soaring and irreversibly tarnish the U.S. dollar as the world's most trusted currency.
House Republicans, egged on by a couple of bomb-throwing senators, are responsible for the stalemate. Having essentially won the budget battle when Democratic senators agreed to keep the government operating at GOP-preferred spending levels, the Republicans then came up with additional demands that they knew could not be met: defunding or delaying the Affordable Care Act. As long as their strategy was nihilism, Obama was right to say that negotiation would be pointless.
Now Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a former vice presidential candidate, has offered a different approach, although he didn't explicitly label it that way. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Ryan proposed negotiations not over Obamacare but about "common-sense reforms of the country's entitlement programs and tax code."
This is what both sides should be talking about. Unreformed entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare, will drive the country deeper and deeper into debt, as a recent Congressional Budget Office analysis showed; meanwhile, Congress and Obama have agreed to unsustainably deep cuts in all other spending, including defense, education, parks and many other programs. Ryan said some of those cuts could be undone in exchange for reforms to Medicare and Social Security, including some that Obama included in his budget. There should be common ground.
"This isn't a grand bargain," Ryan writes, sensibly. A commitment to make progress on these issues, accompanied by a reopening of the government and a temporary extension of the debt ceiling, could offer a way out.
The difficulty is knowing whether Ryan, or anyone, can speak for the Republican caucus in the House. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who with colleagues is scheduled to meet today with Obama, needs to rally his troops to accept some version of such a deal, and Obama should embrace it. Both men know that entitlement reform of the sort described by Ryan would be in the national interest.