When all else fails, try being reasonable. That's our most hopeful reading of House Speaker John Boehner's effort to get the word out, through proxies, that he will not let the United States default on its financial obligations, even if it means relying on Democratic votes to pass an increase in the soon-to-expire federal debt limit. Coupled with talk from other senior House Republicans that the GOP wants to pivot from trying to defund Obamacare to a more germane tax-and-spending deal with Democrats, the Ohioan's reported remark was the most promising hint of Republican flexibility since the partial government shutdown began last Tuesday.
The question is, how promising? Obviously, Boehner's adjusted posture is a far cry from the unconditional debt-ceiling increase President Barack Obama demands; indeed, if the point is to eliminate the risk of a possibly disastrous default, as Boehner says, he could just bring a bill to the floor and pass one, relying on Democratic votes. But if he did that, he'd be out of leverage against the White House and maybe thrown out of office as Speaker by his own caucus.
No, what's happening is the beginning of a Republican leadership effort -- of indeterminate substance and indeterminate support among the rank and file -- to wriggle off the political hook on which the GOP's far-right faction has hung the party. Obama has little reason to engage Boehner until the latter supplies more specifics -- policy-wise and in terms of a House GOP vote count. If the Speaker is seeking cover for another defund-Obamacare gambit, the White House should not bite.
If, in fact, Boehner has both the intention and capability to talk about a genuine bipartisan compromise on such matters as entitlement reform, tax reform and changes in the sequester cuts that are crippling both defence and domestic programs, Obama should rise above the rancor of recent weeks and negotiate. The idea of a "grand bargain," which some Republicans are floating as a narrative-changing manoeuvre, may be far-fetched. But a plan that, say, trades a rewrite of the so-called sequester for incremental entitlement reform, combined with a mutual pledge to pursue tax reform, might have a chance.
If that, or something like it, is what the GOP is belatedly coming to, it could well be in Obama's interest to negotiate, even if it means fudging his previous pledge not to bargain over the debt ceiling. Though Obama and his party appear to be winning the political battle over the government shutdown, the consequences of a debt default are likely to be baleful for both parties.
Much more important, Obama should hear the GOP out because a deal, even one linked to resolution of the shutdown and debt-ceiling issues, as Boehner indicated Sunday, could be in the country's interest. Though the deficit is under control in the short run, the long-run fiscal predicament remains unresolved. Even a step toward that objective would send a desperately needed positive signal about the United States' financial -- and political -- stability.