What is being passed off as a debate in Washington about the federal budget is an embarrassment.

Setting arbitrary targets for how much federal spending must be cut and threatening a government shutdown is a disservice to voters from any party.

Likewise, refusals to consider changes in popular entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, show that members of Congress are more interested in scoring political points than crafting a more responsible federal budget.

Americans of all political persuasions should be outraged and should, in the words of the president, demand that their representatives “act like grown-ups.”

There is only one rational path through this impasse — and it does not involve a government shutdown, which may make for great political theater, but only ends up hurting Americans.

Lawmakers need to acknowledge that they’ve made a terrible mess of the budget for 2011, a fiscal year that is more than half over. Then, they need to agree to a spending plan that includes spending reductions based on what government should reasonably be expected to do, not arbitrary numbers. The plan will be far from perfect, but it will be done.

Then Congress can turn its attention to the 2012 budget, a document where real changes — that will rein in spending and reduce the deficit — can be made.

To this point, negotiation — we use that term loosely — on a spending plan has consisted of threats — mainly from Republicans — met with ridicule from Democrats.

Last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor presented the “Prevention of a Government Shutdown Act.” Under the act, if the Senate didn’t pass a budget, a spending bill passed in the Republican-controlled House would become law. This, of course, violates the Constitution.

Democrats gleefully suggested that Mr. Cantor watch the old Schoolhouse Rock segment “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” Middle-aged Saturday morning cartoon watchers will remember “I’m just a bill … sitting here on Capitol Hill.”

Showing cartoon clips and issuing hollow threats is easy. Addressing a growing budget deficit — which will mean far less government spending and an elimination of costly tax breaks — is difficult.

But, members of Congress were elected to do the hard work, and they should get to it.

Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, stepped forward as one of the grown-ups Wednesday.

“Compromise is a necessary element in a well-functioning legislative body,” she wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. “I believe that failure to reach a compromise to prevent a government shutdown will only reinforce the belief held by many that our nation’s capital is a place of complete dysfunction.

“It is time to put our differences aside and for both parties to come together to agree on a responsible budget for the remainder of this fiscal year and to finally begin making the tough choices necessary to fund the government in fiscal year 2012.”

Sens. Reid and McConnell — and House Speaker John Boehner should be listening too — have until midnight Friday to heed her advice.