January 15. 2013 5:26PM

The debt ceiling: Right fight, wrong time

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives need to take a firm stand against Washington's reckless spending habits. They just need to find a better place to make that stand than from atop the debt ceiling.

House Republicans want President Obama to agree to spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling (which allows the federal government to continue borrowing money). The President says there is no way he will do that. As he put it at Monday's press conference, you don't go to dinner and then skip out on the tab. But once you have maxed out your credit cards, shouldn't you stop eating out?

The Republicans view the debt ceiling increase as their one chance to squeeze spending concessions from a President who otherwise will never agree to reduce federal appropriations. The trouble with forcing that standoff is that Republicans cannot win it. Obama will stand firm, and they will have to flinch or shut down the government. Either way, Obama wins and Republicans lose more credibility, which makes it harder to force a showdown on spending on more favorable ground in the future.

Of course, default is not inevitable should the ceiling not be raised. As Bloomberg View columnist Caroline Baum wrote in these pages on Tuesday, if Congress does not authorize more borrowing, the administration can pay our debts with current tax revenues, thereby avoiding default. Obama just has to stop paying for a lot of other things, including entitlements. But Republicans won't win this political battle by trying to explain that technical point in 20-second snippets on the evening news.

A responsible President would have put the federal government on the path to a balanced budget by now. Obama has no desire to do that, which means Republicans will have to force his hand at some point. This is not that point.