With a real debt crisis looming, Washington finally seems focused on ending the phony crisis that shuttered much of the federal government for the past 2? weeks.
But are lawmakers too late?
Without an increase in the debt ceiling, Treasury officials say the government won't be able to meet all its obligations after today. Defaulting would be catastrophic for America's creditworthiness — and for the world's economy.
That finally seems to be clear to tea party conservatives, such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida, who just a week ago were dismissing default as meaningless. With the deadline approaching, they have returned to the back benches and the GOP's putative leaders appear to be negotiating a face-saving deal.
"It's very, very serious," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the New York Times. "Republicans have to understand we have lost this battle, as I predicted weeks ago, that we would not be able to win because we were demanding something that was not achievable."
At this writing, however, a settlement before the deadline isn't assured. If there is an agreement, it probably will be short-term, and it almost certainly won't address the sequester cuts that, as both parties recognize, are proving damaging to the government and the economy.
A proposal put forth Tuesday by House Republicans would reopen federal agencies until Dec. 15 and extend government borrowing authority until Feb. 7. In effect, it would reset the clock for the next showdown.
That's preferable to a default, but passage is uncertain because Republicans are hanging on to one of the Obamacare demands that caused the government shutdown.
They dropped efforts to delay the individual mandate, repeal an excise tax on medical devices and write audit requirements into law, but House Republicans still want to eliminate government contributions to the White House staff, members of Congress and congressional staffers for purchasing coverage from the new health insurance exchange. No other employer is bound by such a restriction.
Democrats almost certainly won't vote for the Obamacare restriction, so the challenge to Speaker John Boehner is to find 218 GOP votes to get the plan out of the House rather than allowing Democrats and a handful of Republicans to approve a bill that only raises the debt ceiling and reopens the government.
Every day this drags on undermines public confidence, such as it is, in its government and the world's confidence in U.S. leadership.
China, the United States' primary economic rival, already is seeking to capitalize on the chaos in Washington with suggestions that the dollar is no longer fit to be the reserve currency for international dealings. A weekend editorial from the state-run Xinhua news agency said this may be a good time "to start considering building a de-Americanized world."
Bravado? Sure. So was closing down the government. So is bringing the government to the brink of default. In the end, we don't think Congress will let that happen .<TH>.<TH>. this time.
We may not be so lucky the next time.