President Barack Obama presented a sensible argument Monday for turning a crisis over the federal debt ceiling into an opportunity for significant deficit reduction. Yet while the president is willing to risk angering fellow Democrats by putting entitlement reforms on the table, Republicans refuse to budge on raising new revenue. Obama should continue to press his pragmatic position, and reasonable congressional Republicans should not be cowed by the intransigence of the tea party-fueled extremists.
The United States will default on its obligations unless the debt ceiling is raised by the Aug. 2 deadline, and economists predict that could lead to economic calamity. House Speaker John Boehner understands this calculus and was reportedly negotiating a $4 trillion deficit reduction deal — including nearly $1 trillion in revenues over 10 years — with the president and congressional Democrats. He lost his nerve over the weekend when his more rigid Republican colleagues began complaining, and by Monday afternoon he was in full retreat. If Boehner wants his speakership to stand for something other than just holding the title, he has to step up again and accept the political risks of compromise. The risks of doing nothing are far greater.
It's time to "eat our peas" is how Obama described the current moment. The president wants "shared sacrifice" and is willing to include cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security, despite the "significant heat" he would get from his own party. But Republicans are not willing to make equally painful compromises and insist on a smaller deal of spending cuts alone. Obama should continue to oppose that approach. He notes that without additional revenue, "You are putting more of a burden on the people who can least afford it."
Republicans claim that reducing the deficit would be the best way to create jobs and speed economic recovery, giving businesses certainty and encouraging foreign investment. Yet their position would sacrifice America's economic well-being to protect tax loopholes for corporate jet owners, oil companies and hedge fund managers. Then there are bomb-throwers like Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who claims nothing bad will happen if there is no deal by Aug. 2 and calls Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner a "Chicken Little." Some Republican presidential candidates are making similar claims as they appeal to conservative primary voters. They are not listening to the unequivocal warnings from Wall Street and the International Monetary Fund that America risks harming its own economy and sending shock waves worldwide if the debt ceiling isn't raised in time.
Irresponsible partisanship is not solely Republican territory. Democrat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says she's unwilling to consider a deal that includes cuts to Medicare and Social Security. It's better to wait to see the details of a proposed agreement before drawing lines in the sand. Democrats have the chance to be seen as the political party willing to make difficult choices toward fiscal discipline, with Obama leading the way.
Obama has shown his willingness to compromise in pursuit significant deficit reduction that includes both spending cuts and increased revenue. It's time for Republicans in Congress to join him in the middle and stop allowing tea party extremists to dictate the negotiations. There is too much at stake for the nation to be held hostage to rigid ideology from either Republicans or Democrats.