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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

To GOP’s credit, profiles in common sense

LET’S GIVE the Republican congressional leadership some deserved credit. This week, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell showed courage and common sense. Or at least what, in these hyperpartisan times, passes for the same.

Those quasi qualities came in engineering passage of an unconditioned, or “clean,” increase in the nation’s borrowing authority, something necessary if this country is to pay its bills and meet its legal obligations in the year ahead.

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Start with the speaker, whose job presiding over the unruly House Republican caucus is akin to herding cats. By bringing a clean bill to the floor, Boehner took the biggest step in averting another fiscal standoff. The bill was something Democrats could vote for; that, in turn, meant most Republicans could vote no, thereby insulating themselves from right-wing anger.

In the Senate, McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn, both of whom face more conservative primary challengers, joined the effort to end a filibuster and bring the debt-limit bill to a vote. Another 10 Republicans rallied round to give their leaders cover. The filibuster defeated, Democrats then passed the bill on a simple majority vote.

But wait, a reader versed in the fiscal facts might object, wouldn’t real leadership involve the Republicans stowing their reflexive “reckless spending” rhetoric and admitting that the big deficit driver during Obama’s years in office has been the economic collapse and slow recovery? And, further, that short-term deficits are now dropping to sustainable levels?

Wouldn’t true common sense mean acknowledging outright that it’s absurd to initiate a political battle over whether to pay the bills for obligations the government has already made? And that the proper time to fight over that spending is during the budgetary process? And that even then, as the GOP learned last fall, Americans would rather see compromise than a government shutdown?

To which one can only say: What an idealistic naif such a reader would be!

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In today’s Washington, this is about as brave as leaders get. Even those moves, which amounted to letting a majority decide the issue in both chambers, touched off the usual denunciations from right-wing groups. Of course, these organizations thrive by stoking right-wing anger. Every action they disagree with is a calamity conservatives must mobilize against. It’s how they raise money to fund their operations and pay their own salaries.

But one can’t govern according to their no-compromise dictates. Boehner, who realizes as much, has made clear his disdain for groups that are forever demanding that House Republicans man the ideological ramparts. More and more members now seem to be adopting the speaker’s attitude toward the absolutists.

That’s a heartening development for those who recall a time when the GOP prided itself on being a big tent, and not a place where anyone who didn’t toe the right-wing line was denounced as a “RINO,” or Republican in Name Only.

“The party has kowtowed too much to the extremes, and it has hurt us in presidential and congressional races,” notes former Massachusetts governor Jane Swift. As Swift puts it, clear-eyed Republicans should be pleased that Boehner has averted another fiscal showdown and the backlash that probably would have accompanied it. “I think he has prevented another stain on the Republican brand,” she said.

GOP House members seem to recognize as much. In part that’s because the speaker played this adroitly, letting his members talk through various conditions that might be attached to the bill, a discussion that made it obvious that nothing under consideration could attract enough GOP votes to raise the debt limit.

Once that was apparent, it was just as clear that the best course for House Republicans was to let a clean bill pass with mostly Democratic support. That set the stage for Senate Republicans to follow suit.

Conservative zealots may consider that a surrender or betrayal. But actually, what we saw this week was the realistic and responsible act of a political grown-up.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.

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