It’s often said that people in Washington aren’t in touch with reality.
Perhaps that’s not true. Maybe the trouble is that it’s hard for those in Washington to agree on exactly what constitutes reality.
This clash over Washington’s apparitions may never have been more evident than the current donnybrook over raising the debt ceiling. As this week progressed, it’s grown increasingly harder to distinguish concreteness from the mirages and phantasms that now haunt the Twilight Zone which doubles as the nation’s capital.
“The debt ceiling must be raised,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) at a press conference on Monday. “I agree with the president. We cannot allow the nation to default on its debt.”
But by Tuesday morning, Boehner dropped this bombshell.
“This debt limit increase is his problem,” said Boehner, handing off the hot potato to President Obama.
It’s been subtle. But over the past few weeks, a number of Republicans have nuanced their description of the debt ceiling scenario as “the president’s request to increase the debt ceiling” or “the request of President Obama’s Treasury Secretary.” It’s true, the president and his Secretary of the Treasury historically ask Congress to increase the debt limit. However, by making Mr. Obama or Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner the source of this petition, Republicans artfully tilt the argument. Raising the debt ceiling is anathema to many Republicans (and a lot of Democrats, too). But the president already suffers a credibility problem with deficits and spending. So pinning the solicitation on the president is an easy way for the GOP to distance itself from this onerous task, lest voters blame them for raising the debt ceiling.
This dexterous pivot incensed Democrats.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) was nearly apoplectic when a reporter asked a question about the GOP’s sleight-of-hand.
“Yeah, I think it’s absurd and I think dishonest,” blurted Hoyer before the scribe even finished his query. “It seems to be totally a partisan premise that somehow extending the debt is to the benefit of President Obama.”
Of course, there are some Republicans who aren’t convinced the debt ceiling needs to be increased at all by August 2nd.
Mr. Snuffleupagus Meets Rasputin
For more than a decade, the wooly mammoth Muppet named Mr. Snuffleupagus roamed Sesame Street. Only children and Big Bird could see Snuffleupagus, not adults. In fact, when Big Bird mentioned Snuffleupagus to the grown ups, they accused him of having an active imagination or not telling the truth.
On Wednesday morning, presidential contender Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) joined Reps. Steve King (R-IA) and Louie Gohmert (R-TX) for a news conference. That’s where they essentially likened the pending debt crisis to an appearance by Mr. Snuffleupagus.
“This is a misnomer that I believe that the president and the Treasury Secretary have been trying to pass off on the American people, and it’s this: that if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion, that somehow the United States will go into default and we will lose the full faith and credit of the United States,” said Bachmann. “That is simply not true.”
In fact, Gohmert suggested that some of President Obama’s advisers were lying to him about the potential for an August default. Gohmert then cast Mr. Obama as some sort of Rasputinian mystic who hornswoggled John Boehner into believing a debt limit increase was necessary.
“The speaker is getting bad advice,” said Gohmert. “The problem with the speaker….is he believed the president. And I will encourage the speaker not to believe the president anymore.”
So, maybe this entire default narrative is as imaginary as Mr. Snuffleupagus. Regardless, Snuffleupagus wasn’t the only fairy-tale creature lurking in the House of Representatives Wednesday.
Fauns, Griffins, Unicorns and the Balanced Budget Amendment
The call is now intensifying among conservatives for both chambers of Congress to approve a balanced budget amendment before lawmakers vote on a debt limit hike. One senior GOP leadership aide indicated to FOX that if the president showed give on a balanced budget amendment, that “would dislodge a significant number of Republican votes” to raise the debt ceiling.
“The only way you can hold the line on spending is a Constitutional amendment (to balance the budget” said freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS).
But the problem with adopting a Constitutional amendment is that it needs a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate, plus three-quarters of the states. Huelskamp indicated that “80 percent” of the American public supported a balanced budget amendment. But the Kansas Republican couldn’t outline a path that got either the House or Senate to “67 percent” to amend the Constitution.
The demand to pass a balanced budget amendment is exasperating to some senior Republican lawmakers as well as GOP leadership aides.
Separate GOP leadership aides in different conversations invoked mythical creatures including a faun, a griffin and a unicorn when describing what some tea party lawmakers want Congress to produce before they vote to raise the debt limit.
There will be votes next week in the House and Senate on a balanced budget amendment. But no one has any clue how they can conjure up two-thirds in both bodies to coax tea party loyalists to approve a debt ceiling increase.
The press erupted the past few days with reports of a rift between Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Chatter of such a schism has filled the halls of Congress for years. There’s also been talk for years of an acrimonious relationship between Steny Hoyer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
Aides to both Boehner and Cantor shrugged off such talk this week. But that did little to quash the gossip.
“There’s a lot of politics going on in the Republican caucus,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who chairs the national committee in charge of getting Democrats elected to the House. “There is a real fissure.”
But others, like Boehner foot soldier Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH), laughed off suggestions of a division. Tiberi accused Democrats like Israel of trying to stir the pot.
“The narrative is wrong. This is a story that seems a lot sexier than the one that is actually the truth,” said Tiberi. “Look, we’re in DC. It’s Congress. And everybody who is here probably has some sort of ambition.”
But others weren’t so fast as Tiberi to dismiss the rumors.
One Republican close to Boehner told FOX that the speaker “needs to have a come to Jesus meeting” with the rest of the Republican leadership. Another House Republican indicated to FOX that Cantor’s perceived ambition wasn’t about the Virginia Republican marginalizing Boehner as much as it was about self-preservation.
“(Cantor) wants to put distance between he and Boehner so he’s not tied to Boehner if Boehner goes down,” said the Republican.
Late Wednesday, a fourth-consecutive day of debt ceiling negotiations broke just as the Moody’s credit rating agency placed the federal government under review for a potential downgrade.
Fresh from the conclave, Cantor caucused with reporters near the House floor. He told reporters the president became “very agitated” at the end of the meeting.
“He said to me, ‘Eric, don’t call my bluff.’ He said ‘I’m going to the American people with this,’” Cantor quoted the president. “He shoved back from the table and said ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’ and walked out.”
Shortly after Cantor relayed his version, Democratic sources familiar with the discussions presented an alternative view of the same event.
“The meeting ended with Cantor being dressed down while sitting in silence,” wrote one Democratic source.
Another said that “Congressman Cantor is the last guy who should complain about people abruptly walking out of meetings.” That’s a reference to Cantor’s decision to withdraw from debt negotiations honchoed by Vice President Biden.
Still another Democratic source described Cantor’s report as “completely overblown” and added that the leader “rudely interrupted the president.”
Cantor contested that account later Wednesday night.
“I never interrupted the president and in fact I was deferential, seeking his permission to speak to him, (Budget Director ) Jack Lew or whomever,” Cantor said.
The Velveteen Rabbit Factor
In the children’s classic “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a stuffed toy rabbit is so loved by a little boy that the rabbit becomes “real.” The Velveteen Rabbit learns from a Skin Horse toy that “once you are real, you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
Such is the case with these chronicles from Capitol Hill. Some of these scenarios and conflicts are real. Some are false. Maybe it’s a fiction that the U.S. will default in August. Maybe there are the votes to pass a balanced budget amendment. Maybe there’s conflict between Boehner and Cantor. And so on.
Some of these things aren’t true. But like the Velveteen Rabbit, the narratives are real to someone – which makes them the narrative of Capitol Hill. They leap off the front pages, scream from the television and echo through the marble corridors.
And once they’ve become real, they can’t become unreal again.