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A federal budget mess

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If the current congressional leadership wanted to definitively prove itself incapable of fixing the nation's budget crisis, it could do no worse than the way it is handling the upcoming deadline for keeping the government going.

The fiscal year began Oct. 1, and Congress has yet to agree on a spending bill. The government is operating on a continuing resolution, which keeps the previous budget in place. But that resolution expires at midnight Saturday. Without a new bill or another continuing resolution, the government will shut down.

To meet this crisis, Democrats and a handful of Republicans (including Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee) have crafted a 1,924-page bill that is laden with earmarks, the pet projects certain lawmakers have in their home districts and toward which they hope to direct funding. The Senate version of the bill is worse than the House version, but both are bloated. The Associated Press reports a list of familiar-sounding earmarks such as $80 million to preserve Pacific salmon and a host of research projects and things like anti-drug-abuse programs.

Some are likely worthy; others not. But all miss the point, which is that the United States is in a fiscal crisis.

Senate Republicans are threatening to filibuster the bill to death, but it's unknown whether they have the votes to do so. Bennett, for example, says he will vote for it. Meanwhile, fights are looming over whether to begin funding the president's health care plan, new financial services regulations and the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to the United States.

Perhaps the best solution would be for Congress to simply pass another continuing resolution that lasts until the new year, when the newly elected Congress takes charge. That would provide no guarantee of something better, but at least it would reflect the will of voters in the last election, not the wills of several lame-duck legislators whose agendas aren't clear.

Either way, however, one thing is clear. Few people in Washington seem to be grasping the seriousness of trillion-dollar deficits and a national debt that totals an estimated $13.8 trillion.

The president's own bipartisan deficit commission came to a fractured verdict recently that reflected how any real solution to this problem will have to be drastic and painful. An 11-member majority of that 18-member commission backed a plan that called for dramatic changes in tax law, changes in entitlements such as Social Security as well as in defense, and some controversial tax increases. The resulting criticisms from the right and the left illustrated just how difficult real change will be.

But however difficult a solution would be politically, carrying on as usual is the most risky path of all. A Gallup Poll after November's election found Americans gave this Congress a 17 percent approval rating. A little tough leadership might just be the way to raise that.