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In our opinion: Politics of brinkmanship

Published: Sunday, Sept. 22 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Jeff Flake, the Republican senator from Arizona, may have exhibited the best grasp on reality when he told the Weekly Standard that Congress should leave the Affordable Care Act alone and watch it crumble under its own weight.

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Jeff Flake, the Republican senator from Arizona, may have exhibited the best grasp on reality when he told the Weekly Standard that Congress should leave the Affordable Care Act alone and watch it crumble under its own weight.

The law, known to many as Obamacare, is about to hit home with its requirement for all Americans to obtain insurance or pay a "tax," as the Supreme Court called it. The administration has been working hard to get through all the bureaucratic barriers to reach this point. Logistics already caused it to postpone for one year the mandate on many businesses providing insurance to employees in order to avoid paying fines. Businesses have shown signs of favoring part-time workers, downsizing or dropping insurance coverage completely in order to save money (for many, the fines for not providing insurance are less than the costs of providing it).

But instead of letting a flawed law run its course to ruin, Republicans in Congress are gearing up for another budget showdown, this time demanding to defund the Affordable Care Act in exchange for renewing a continuing resolution to fund the government at the end of this month. GOP leaders are threatening to shut down the government if they don't get this concession. If Congress can't agree to raise the nation's debt ceiling again by mid-October, the government would begin defaulting on its debts, as well.

How much better it would be if all sides in Washington would get together in a spirit of compromise, rather than treating each other with the sort of suspicion best reserved for foreign dictators.

The unfolding scenario is predictable to a point. The GOP-controlled House may pass a bill that funds the government and kills the Affordable Care Act. The Senate, despite support from Utah's Mike Lee, won't even consider debating such a thing. With government shutdown as a leverage, conservative lawmakers would push the nation to the brink of a repeat of the 1995 stalemate.

What happens next is left largely to conjecture. Earlier brinkmanship brought on the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester, which took effect despite howls of protest but ended up causing little noticeable damage. This time, however, many observers believe a total shutdown is a real possibility. Its effect depends mainly on public reaction.

But little real progress can be expected in a contest in which both sides define victory only as the complete and unconditional surrender of the opponent. That was the genesis of this problem. The Affordable Care Act is a divisive and flawed piece of legislation precisely because it was passed by a Democratic majority without any support from or compromise with Republicans. The GOP believes once the law gains a foothold in American society, it may be impossible to uproot it, but the fact is the party lacks the clout to put an end to it legislatively.

Like it or not, compromise is the only real solution.

As a backdrop to this struggle, the annual federal deficit has begun shrinking on its own to levels not seen since the Great Recession, a consequence of a recovering economy. This undoubtedly will play into the battle for the hearts and minds of American voters, who may be persuaded that no real crisis exists.

Rest assured, the crisis has not gone away. The nation's overall debt is on a trajectory to overtake gross domestic product in a little over 20 years. Social Security and Medicare are on paths to unsustainability, short of massive tax increases.

Ending the Affordable Care Act would help the long-term picture, but it would not be a long-term strategy for prosperity. And in any case, it is not a plausible political option.

Maybe dire threats are one tool to bring about compromise, if the public goes along.

But the risk of disaster is real, and it could further hurt the nation's standing as a leader in a dangerous world.

The frustrations of a sharply divided government cannot easily be threatened away. Sen. Flake may be right. The Affordable Care Act may face an existential crisis on its own — but not if an ill-handled crisis turns public sympathies toward it.

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