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Editorial: GOP wiser to parlay automatic spending cuts

House Republicans, after a three-day retreat, say they will authorize a short-term debt ceiling increase later this week.

What’s the point?

The United States should never default on its commitment to borrowers. Ever. Just a potential default, and the lack of “predictability of American policymaking,” was enough to trigger a 2011 downgrade of federal credit by Standard & Poor’s. A three-month extension just reinforces S&P’s conclusions.

And, loathsome as it may be for Republicans to admit, the great inflation of American debt began on their watch. They ate the meal, as the president reminded them last week, they – and Democrats – must pay the tab.

Better, they should stop eating.

If Republicans sincerely want to reverse the nation’s journey toward fiscal breakdown – President Barack Obama certainly will not do it – the March 1 deadline for sequestration is the opportunity. The ill-conceived byproduct of the same failed budget negotiations that frustrated S&P, sequestration requires $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that fall disproportionately on the Department of Defense. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns of a “hollowed-out” military should the Pentagon have to comply.

The U.S. Air Force, for example, might have to freeze hiring, eliminate temporary workers, review overseas operations and cancel minor purchases, among other measures.

Sequestration was to take effect Jan. 1, but it was one of a carton of cans booted to resolve the “fiscal cliff” crisis. In Washington, D.C., a three-month hiatus counts as a resolution.

Pinning one-half the sequestration cuts on the Pentagon was supposed to be the hammer that would force the GOP to accept a balanced spending cut/tax increase budget measure. Now, Republicans say they did their part by allowing higher taxes on the rich. They can make a plausible case that it’s the turn of the president and Senate Democrats to reduce spending.

With an uproar over more defense cuts likely, Republicans could seize the hammer if they can make it appear Democrats are willing to sacrifice national security rather than cut domestic programs. The confirmation hearings for defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel will give Republican senators a way to tee up that debate if they do not let the debt ceiling or other issues become a distraction.

Debate over the debt ceiling is a sideshow, and not a very entertaining one. Keeping sequestration center stage will give Republicans real leverage. The worst case, $85 billion in across-the-board cuts, might do more good than harm, and at least changes the conversation.

That is, if the two parties are willing to talk at all.

Obama takes his second oath of office today. Notes of conciliation unheard since he won re-election would be reassuring. So would some words of truth about the choices that will have to be made.

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