WASHINGTON - House Republicans may finally have paid attention to polls showing their negativity rating as high as it ever has been, as if losing the presidential race and dire predictions about their future weren't enough to have convinced them earlier. For once, common political sense may trump strict ideological adherence.
They are offering to give up their opposition to raising the debt limit without substantial deficit reduction for the short term if the Democratic-led Senate will adopt a budget in the next three months. The Senate majority -- not completely innocent in the fiscal horror show that has dominated Capitol Hill the past four years -- would be wise to now do its part. The White House indicates that President Barack Obama will accept that deal.
There is, as always, a hitch. If by mid-April the upper chamber hasn't formed a budget, members' pay would be suspended. Whether the august solons of the deliberative body will buy into this is anyone's guess. Having watched the shenanigans on the Hill up close for 50 years, I wouldn't wager much on their acquiescence to this sort of extortion.
On the other hand, reopening the all-out warfare about the debt ceiling would be a disaster that no one survives. My guess is they will work out a solution. If not, little else will go forward -- including the Republican Party itself, which has borne the brunt of criticism for perpetual gridlock on national problems involving the economy, immigration and gun control.
One can only hope that this debt-ceiling offer is the first step toward restoring sanity to the Republican base -- that it ultimately leads the party out of the political wilderness and back toward the center without costing it its basic identity and differences. That may be just wishful conjecture, but it has been evident for some time that the GOP is facing an uncertain future without accommodations to a rapidly changing electorate. Its absolutism on key issues such as taxes and social issues have narrowed its appeal dramatically. Ask Mitt Romney, who lost most of the elements of an increasingly diverse demographic.
Being a party principally dominated by white males who are still living in the last century is a recipe for extinction. At the same time, the party can hold onto reasonable differences and lead the way toward sensible compromise.
Whether the debt-ceiling offer can begin that process will depend on the GOP leadership -- and that hasn't been terribly effective recently. House Speaker John Boehner ultimately had to acquiesce to his Senate counterpart, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, to at least temporarily keep the nation from tumbling into the foolish economic abyss designed to scare everybody into some form of detente.
In this latest caper, the result of some GOP soul-searching at a retreat in Williamsburg, Va., Boehner had to set aside his own rule never to raise the debt limit without a dollar-for-dollar match in debt reduction. Speculation is that the Ohio congressman has only a short time to prevent self-immolation, perhaps from one of the many cigarettes he still smokes.
That also goes for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. The odds may be short that the Nevadan with the shoot-from-the-hip style of leadership can keep a civil tongue long enough to prevent the whole effort from imploding. Obama by all rights should have something to say about that. But who knows? Unless this latest gambit works in some fashion or another, Americans will face another year of uncertainty -- a stressful struggle that tests their mettle and reduces their faith in the nation's direction.
Sadly, this all was brought about by an electorate that should have paid more attention to those it chose to represent it. But it always has been that way. As humorist Will Rogers once quipped, we have the best legislature money can buy.
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.