Tick, tick, tick.

Is time running out, or is the Washington political establishment scamming us one more time?

Remember the government shutdown “deadline” and all the panic that prevailed as Democrats and Republicans went down to the very last minute before reaching a budget deal? The showdown this time is about the need to extend the federal government’s “debt ceiling” — the congressionally imposed limit on how much money the government can borrow to pay its bills.

That the government has to borrow money — vast amounts of money — to pay its bills speaks volumes about the dire financial straits our country faces as the clock winds down on the Aug. 2 deadline for increasing the debt limit.

If families and private businesses walked this close to the edge of the financial cliff on a daily basis, most of them would be in bankruptcy court; but then, families and businesses can’t call up the folks at MasterCard and say, “Hey, we’ve decided to increase the credit limit on our account.”

The U.S. government can boost its own credit limit, though, and that’s what the current political battle in the nation’s capital is all about. Because the government is spending vastly more money than it collects in taxes and other revenues, it simply has to keep borrowing to stay in business.

The consequences of not raising the debt limit, most experts agree, would be catastrophic, with the government defaulting on its financial obligations at home and around the world.

For Americans who can’t relate to the notion of global market chaos, President Barack Obama made the stakes as high as he possibly could for just plain folks when he suggested last week that the government would stop sending out Social Security checks on Aug. 3 if the debt ceiling isn’t raised by Aug. 2.

Because the executive branch of the government — i.e., the president and the Treasury Secretary — can decide who gets paid and who doesn’t as the money runs out, Obama has Congress over a barrel in this dispute. If Republicans don’t agree to raise the debt limit, they’ll get blamed when Social Security recipients can’t pay their rent, or when members of the military don’t get paychecks.

The problem is, Republicans don’t want to raise the debt limit unless the president agrees to massive spending cuts that will reduce future budget deficits. The president won’t agree to spending cuts unless Republicans agree to raise taxes. Republicans say they won’t sign off on tax increases.

Tick, tick, tick.

As of Friday evening, each side was refusing to budge while accusing the other of refusing to budge.

For the record, we believe the Republicans are right when they say this is no time to raise taxes — on rich people or anyone else. With the economy struggling to recover from a crippling recession, tax increases will discourage investment, hinder growth and, ultimately, cost the country desperately needed jobs. Increasing taxes is always counterproductive; increasing taxes now would be frightfully self-defeating.

All involved are looking for political advantage in this dispute but the president’s approach appears to be the most politically self-serving and cynical of all. He claims to be willing to accept spending cuts and entitlement reform in return for tax increases but has not produced anything remotely resembling a plan for significant, cost-saving changes in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

And it was Obama — the self-styled “adult” in the schoolyard argument about the debt limit — who unleashed the cheapest shot fired so far: the threat to cut off Social Security payments on Aug. 3.

The fact is, the debt limit has to be raised, and it will be raised. Obama knows it. Republicans and Democrats in Congress know it. There was an opportunity here to do something important, to go beyond the routine raising of the debt limit and launch a meaningful effort to control the government’s crushing deficits.

But the opportunity has been lost in an avalanche of political posturing and gamesmanship.

Both sides are too entrenched in their positions now to reach a significant compromise.

So they need to stop stringing us along, stop threatening us with disaster. Obama and Congress need to do what they could have done weeks ago, and probably should have: They need to agree on a temporary extension of the borrowing limit, no strings attached, and go back to the drawing board.

And then they need to stop playing games and start focusing on the future of the country.


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