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EDITORIAL: Distraction from the debt

A budget deal looms in the shadow of the Syria vote

- - Thursday, September 5, 2013

Congress comes back on Monday, and all eyes will be on the members and whether they will support the president on Syria. The momentous foreign-policy question diverts attention from the equally pressing concern of what to do about the nation's $16.7 trillion debt.

The federal government's credit line has been maxed out since March, forcing Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to resort to smoke-and-mirror accounting tricks that make it appear that we've stopped the borrowing needed to keep the government running. Mr. Lew says he will run out of gimmicks in mid-October. Congress and the president have only a few weeks' time to make a plan.

The atmosphere of haste fuels big government. The debt-ceiling deal is the only leverage House Speaker John A. Boehner and his fellow Republicans have over the White House. He could use it to extract approval of the job-creating Keystone XL pipeline, reform ethanol mandates or force a delay of Obamacare implementation before it begins next month.

Rushing a deal means it's more likely that the debate over Syrian poison gas will be used as an excuse to dispense with $20 billion in the scheduled reduction of defense spending. Those cuts are unfortunate, but it's hard to take a credible stand in favor of fiscal responsibility without even the wary giving up something.

If this sounds familiar, it's because we've been here before. There will be noisy drama before a last-minute "compromise" is revealed that only goes one way. President Obama will get to borrow another trillion dollars, and Congress will avoid seriously reducing spending. The status quo will be preserved.

The only question is whether the administration is willing to grant the Republicans a fig leaf, such as a one-year moratorium on the Obamacare individual mandate to match the administration-imposed delay on the employer side. It's not clear why Mr. Obama would be so generous. Republican leaders, terrified of being portrayed as heartless and cruel for "shutting down" the non-essential functions of government, telegraph well in advance of any discussions that they do not intend to stand in the way of expanding the government.

Small wonder that the public sees no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. A Monmouth University Poll finds that just 14 percent of Americans think Congress is doing a decent job, with only 4 points of scorn separating the Democratic Senate and the slightly more popular Republican House.

The Republican leaders should realize that preserving the status quo won't do much to advance the Republican "brand." Focusing solely on getting past the next election alive is not the kind of excitement that turns out voters to vote Republican. A better idea would be to do what's right for the country, by refusing to spend more money we don't have.