High noon in Washington Gingrich-Clinton showdown: Struggle over debt ceiling and spending bill unwarranted.

November 11, 1995

BILL CLINTON and Newt Gingrich just have to go through with it. The speaker just has to send veto-bait fiscal measures to the White House to assuage Republican legislators he has fired up to fever pitch. And the president just has to veto these bills to retain any credibility whatsoever with the Democratic rank and file.

If carried to their illogical conclusions, these confrontations would be very bad for the country and wouldn't say much for the politicians involved (add Bob Dole to the list). But since all three are riddled with presidential ambition, it may be that they will conspire to keep the consequences minimal.

In rapid-fire succession next week, a temporary bill to keep the government operating will expire Monday midnight, the Treasury will hit its debt ceiling Wednesday and the Republican-controlled Congress will send legislation encapsulating their "Contract with America" to an unreceptive president. It sounds like high noon prolonged indefinitely.

Nevertheless, essential government services will continue. If 800,000 federal workers are laid off, they will get their pay eventually. And Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has vowed he will find devices to make sure Uncle Sam pays his debts until year's end.

So what's the fuss all about? It's about some potential precedents that ought to be avoided. The worse, in our view, is a provision that would deny this and future Treasury secretaries the authority to take emergency action to ward off default. Nothing would do more to alert the financial markets that "the full faith and credit of the United States" might really be at risk when the legislative and executive branches get into a periodic squabble over the national debt. The potential result: higher interest rates than necessary into the indefinite future.

Added encumbrances are some Republican proposals that are better considered on their own merit instead of being given to the president on an or-else basis.

Republican zealots feel they should use any lever available to enact their agenda. After all, Democrats have used such tactics in the past. We disagree. Just because malpractice is bipartisan is hardly testimony to its beneficence. To mess with the nation's credit rating or to go through a temporary government "shutdown" is nothing less than an unwarranted assault on the political system.

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