Symbolism doesn't pay off debts or cover the costs of Social Security and Medicare. This has not stopped politicians in the nation's capital from engaging in an extended and entirely symbolic fight over how to raise the debt ceiling.

It's time to stop the charade.

The outlines of an eventual deal are already clear. Both parties will agree to some spending cuts and to a deficit-reduction trigger that won't take effect until well after the 2012 elections. The triggering language will be vague enough so Republicans can say it would force large spending reductions and Democrats can say it would allow for a mix of cuts and tax increases.

Republicans holding the debt-ceiling increase hostage to their efforts to eviscerate programs know perfectly well that Congress will not risk a financial crisis. They even acknowledge this.

"At some point it's clear to me that we have to increase the debt ceiling," House Speaker John Boehner said Sunday on Face the Nation. Yet Boehner needs to push things to the brink because the Tea Party members of his caucus believe that last year's election gave the GOP a "mandate" to make their wildest small-government dreams a reality. Boehner is trying to appease the right with extended rounds of shadow-boxing and big slabs of antispending rhetoric.

Of course, there was no Tea Party mandate. Democrats still have a majority in the Senate in part because the Tea Party doomed Republican chances of taking it over last year by helping to nominate unelectable candidates, notably Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada.

And the evidence is unmistakable that Republicans realize the budget they adopted last month, confected by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is a political albatross.

In the campaign for next week's special election in New York's 26th congressional district, Republican Jane Corwin is in unexpected jeopardy because Democrat Kathy Hochul has turned the election into a referendum on Ryan's budget and its Medicare cuts. Astonishingly (and falsely), Corwin is now accusing the Democrat of favoring Medicare cuts. The lessons: Corwin can't successfully defend the cuts, so she wants to sow confusion; and Republicans will toss the Ryan budget overboard if that's what it takes to save House seats.

Even Ryan himself isn't defending his Medicare cuts much any more. As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein pointed out, Ryan's major speech in Chicago this week devoted only three, detail-poor paragraphs to Medicare. And Newt Gingrich is being punished by his party for the great sin of telling the truth about the Ryan budget: voters simply won't buy "right-wing social engineering."

Then there was the withdrawal of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) from the "Gang of Six" that was seeking a broad antideficit agreement. Coburn's defection showed that a comprehensive bipartisan accord is impossible as long as Republicans are unwilling to admit the need for substantial new revenues. All the good will in the world can't get around the fact that the bulk of the deficit problem over the next decade is created by the Bush tax cuts.

Sooner or later, all these realities will lead Congress to raise the debt ceiling without pretending that it can resolve the central budget questions. But there is still one major danger.

Having lost on Medicare, Republicans are likely to drop back and seek huge Medicaid cuts--and Ryan's reductions here are, if anything, worse than his Medicare reductions. As even the cautious Congressional Budget Office concluded [PDF], his Medicaid plan "would probably require states to...curtail eligibility for Medicaid, provide less extensive coverage to beneficiaries, or pay more themselves." The cuts would especially harm the disabled, who account for 42 percent of Medicaid expenditures.

The administration has been strangely reserved about Medicaid, which plays a key role in the new health care law's effort to expand coverage. You have to pray that this will not be the issue on which President Obama revs up his Pre-emptive Concession Machine.

The president could also usefully interrupt our deficit obsession for a moment to remind Congress that 13.7 million Americans are still unemployed. If setting up a mechanism for cutting the deficit in the long term makes sense, slashing it now would be foolish.

That's why a quick and narrow deal to raise the debt ceiling is the only sensible way out of this time-wasting confrontation. It is truly irrational to risk the nation's credit standing for the purpose of offering empty symbols to the Tea Party. 

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

Related: Collective Bargain, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for Commonweal. His most recent book is Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country (Macmillan, 2020).

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