Strange week, even by D.C. standards

It was an interesting week in Washington, or perhaps strange is the better adjective.

House Republican Speaker John Boehner used some old-fashioned politics to pass a bill raising the debt ceiling. He avoided the political hit that Republicans would have taken in this election year if they again shut down the government, and damaged the economy, over a largely symbolic fight.

At the same time, he provided cover for Republican House members. Most of them can go home to their districts and say they didn't vote to allow more federal borrowing.

Speaker Boehner accomplished this by simply letting the House vote. He sought support from a few reasonable Republicans in safe districts to get the bill passed. The GOP holds the majority in the House of Representatives and so nothing can go forward without some Republican votes.

The result was a 221-201 approval, with only 28 Republicans in favor, 199 against. House Democrats own the debt ceiling increase, voting 193-2 in favor.

Democrats should own it proudly. Wall Street applauded the move, Main Street should benefit. The last shutdown and the indiscriminate sequestration cuts slowed the economic recovery. It is bad policy to attempt to use the debt ceiling as a bludgeon to force federal spending cuts.

The U.S. Congressional Budget Office recently reported that the budget deficit is now the smallest as a share of the economy since 2007. The CBO said the deficit will continue to narrow in 2014, to $514 billion, down from $680 billion in 2013. Meanwhile, the GDP rose at a seasonally adjusted rate of 3.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, ending the best July-December performance since 2003.

Admittedly, the country faces long-term fiscal challenges, but addressing those will require major structural changes in the tax code, Medicare, Social Security and other big-ticket expenditures. That won't happen in the midst of a government shutdown and debt ceiling fight.

The measure approved last week does not raise the debt limit by a set amount, instead suspending it through March 15, 2015, allowing Treasury to borrow the money it needs to pay the bills.

Perhaps the most courage in getting the legislation passed came from Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, who headed off a filibuster attempt by other members of his party. The Senate then voted to raise the debt limit, 55-43, largely along party lines, Republicans voting against. Sen. McConnell faces a primary challenge in Kentucky and his decision to allow the vote could hurt him. It was, however, the right move for his party and the country.

President Obama, meanwhile, continued to unilaterally alter the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress and signed by him. This time the administration pushed back to 2016 the requirement that businesses with 50-99 employees must provide health insurance, after previously delaying the mandate from Jan. 1, 2014 to Jan. 1, 2015.

The changes announced also give more flexibility to large employers, 100 or more, as to how they provide coverage and to how many workers. The Treasury, which is responsible for imposing penalties under tax law for the failure to meet insurance coverage mandates, called it a phasing in of standards.

The politics are clear. Some businesses may avoid hiring or reduce full-time employees to avoid coverage mandates. Democrats don't want that the focus of an election debate.

But a Washington Post editorial, published by this newspaper last week, got it right; the administration should implement the law or seek congressional approval to amend it. That's problematic, certainly, given Republican opposition to Obamacare and particularly the individual mandate, without which the law will not work. However, the law is the law.

To review, Republican leaders let a debt ceiling vote gain passage, so they could vote against it. Meanwhile, the president delayed portions of his signature legislation to implement it, transitionally.

It is fair to say, only in Washington.

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