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Published: Thursday, 1/24/2013

Raising the limit

House Republicans have abandoned, at least temporarily, their tactic of playing chicken with the federal debt ceiling — a reckless practice that threatens the nation’s credit rating and ability to borrow money to pay its bills. This uncharacteristic expression of responsibility deserves encouragement, and a degree of reciprocity, from the Obama Administration and congressional Democrats.

GOP lawmakers had threatened to withhold their votes to increase the debt limit next month, as they did in the summer of 2011, to force President Obama and the Democratic-majority Senate to accept deep spending cuts. Such a gambit could lead to a partial default that would roil world financial markets and weaken the U.S. economy by raising interest rates.

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It also would worsen the budget problems that Republicans claim to want to solve. Mr. Obama responded, properly, that he would not allow the House to hold him hostage over Washington’s duty to meet obligations it already has incurred.

On Wednesday, the GOP-controlled House voted to raise the debt ceiling through mid-May, long enough to allow both houses of Congress to pass budget blueprints. They also included a grandstanding provision that would dock lawmakers’ pay if the new budget measures are not forthcoming.

Still, the new House position offers a better approach to long-term issues of raising revenue and cutting spending to reduce the $16 trillion debt. That debate should include proposals to curb the costs of entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Shoring up these programs for the long term need not occur by victimizing the neediest recipients, as Republicans too often seek. Rather, it means finding effective ways to reduce health-care costs and taking ability to pay into account in setting tax and benefit levels.

There will be other opportunities for House Republicans to engage in fiscal mischief in the coming weeks. The $110 billion in across-the-board slashes in defense and discretionary spending that were deferred by this month’s fiscal cliff agreement now are scheduled to take effect March 1.

The current legislation to fund operations of the federal government expires March 27, threatening a government shutdown. Both deadlines could provide new pretexts to set unreasonable conditions and engage in ultimatums.

But the White House and lawmakers of both parties still have ample time to engage in productive, good-faith negotiations on both immediate and long-term fiscal issues, rather than renew absolutist positions that are mutually exclusive.

President Obama has conceded in the past the need for entitlement reform; in his inaugural address this week, he described a duty to “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of the deficit.” House Republicans have given him an opening, however fleeting, to lead on these issues.

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