At this point in the process, there are effectively two competing plans to resolve the Republicans’ debt-ceiling crisis: House Speaker John Boehner’s (R) proposal and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D) plan. A third alternative may come together — with five days to go, it would have to come together very quickly — but for now, two options are on the table.

This week, there’s been some worthwhile discussion about whether the differences between the two are really that great. There’s clearly something to this — both plans include massive cuts, both plans include effectively nothing in new revenue, and both would raise the debt ceiling. I heard someone say the other day that, from a progressive perspective, both plans are like going to the dentist to have wisdom-teeth removed — Reid’s plan would yank three of them; Boehner’s would yank four. Both are wildly unpleasant, though one is slightly worse.

There are differences, though, and the details matter.

The most obvious, and the one you’ve no doubt heard the most about, is the duration of the extension. Under Boehner’s approach, Congress would raise the debt ceiling for six months, and then force us to go through the process all over again early next year. All available evidence suggests this would undermine the economy significantly. Under Reid’s plan, the extension would go through the end of next year, putting a lot of minds at ease. Obviously, this matters.

But Jonathan Bernstein goes further, noting that for the left, Reid’s plan is “much, much better” than Boehner’s.

The first difference is the total cuts. Everyone is emphasizing that Reid’s front-line totals are very similar to Boehner’s. But bookkeeping cuts, which analysts are ignoring, buy Reid an extra year of debt-limit extension in exchange for, basically, nothing at all, meaning that Reid slashes government far less than Boehner does. […]

The second set of differences is harder to see from the details that have been reported so far, but they’re about timing and location of the cuts. By all accounts, the revamped Boehner plan is going to be more frontloaded than was his initial offer, because Republicans (to some extent with good reason) don’t trust future Congresses to be bound by decisions made now. Liberals prefer backloaded cuts, partially because they’re less real, but especially because liberals believe that up-front cuts will hurt the economy more while it’s still fragile at best. This is another way that the Reid plan is superior.

Also note the way in which Boehner sets up the second vote in six months. The problem isn’t just the uncertainty that comes with a needless short-term extension; it’s also the fact that under the Speaker’s scenario, policymakers are supposed to spend the next several months in negotiations on how to “reform” the tax code and entitlement programs.

This matters, of course, because if Republicans refuse to accept a compromise, as seems to be their nature, the crisis begins all over again. With no deal, Dems would be told in January, “Accept another $1 trillion in cuts or the GOP will crash the economy.”

In contrast, Reid’s plan would also begin the process on tax/entitlement “reform,” but failing to come up with an agreement wouldn’t undermine the full faith and credit of the United States.

And then there’s the small question of what, exactly, will be cut as part of the larger plans. As Jonathan added, Reid seems focused on military spending, which can afford a few reductions, while Boehner hasn’t offered much in the way of details, which isn’t a good sign.

To be sure, I don’t like Reid’s plan. It’s far too conservative; it concedes too much, and it includes effectively nothing in new revenue, failing to meet the “balanced” test. Under sane circumstances, a Democrat would never propose it, worse yet support it.

But our current circumstances are anything but sane, which is why Reid unveiled this approach, and why the White House and Nancy Pelosi support it. When compared with Boehner’s plan, it’s clearly the smarter way to go.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.