In one of the most-memorable scenes of the 1984 classic "Ghostbusters," Bill Murray confronts the mayor of New York as Gotham faces a paranormal apocalypse.
"This city is headed for a disaster of Biblical proportions," warns Murray.
The mayor inquires what he means.
"Human sacrifice. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!" replies Murray.
The pending crisis with the federal debt ceiling dominated every question House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) fielded from reporters when he met with them Wednesday morning.
Most journalists asked about the debt negotiations and political maneuvering. But Linda Scott of PBS's NewsHour took a different tact.
"Could you please describe what a post-default world would look like?" Scott asked Hoyer. "How would it really affect the country in just regular terms for voters so that they can understand this Armageddon everybody is talking about?"
Hoyer refrained from going completely Bill Murray on Scott, and didn't cite the cohabitation of pets and "mass hysteria." But the Maryland Democrat painted a chilling picture of what could unfold if Congress fails to hike the debt ceiling and not default on its obligations by early August.
"I don't think I can do it real justice," responded Hoyer, who noted that credit markets would dry up, interest rates would soar and the government could eventually be unable to make good on Social Security checks and payments due veterans.
All that was lacking from Hoyer's description was a visit from the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Who you gonna call? Debtbusters.
And so President Obama meets at the White House today with bipartisan Congressional leaders in an effort to avert an economic catastrophe.
The meeting is among the so-called "Big 8," the top two Democratic and Republican leaders from both the House and Senate. But many on Capitol Hill don't regard Tuesday's encounter as a real opportunity to negotiate.
"If it was a real negotiating session, you wouldn't have eight people there," said one senior Congressional aide who asked not to be identified. "Eight people is a photo spray."
In other words, eight Congressional leaders with the President at a White House confab creates a nice photo opportunity for the TV cameras. It shows all the major players huddled around a table trying to craft a deal. But the consensus on Capitol Hill is that a real negotiation would be left to a more elite group: the president, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).
There's precedent for this. That same trio brokered an 11th hour deal to avert a government shutdown last spring. And ultimately, those three must market any package to their respective constituencies.
Mr. Obama must mediate an agreement that is responsible for the nation and foils a potential economic collapse. Boehner must stick to his guns of not raising taxes, yet selling the deal to skeptical conservatives and upstart Republican freshmen. Reid is tasked with convincing moderate Democrats like Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Jon Tester (D-MT) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) to support an agreement.
Over the past few years, political gamblers have rolled some serious dice in the Washington, DC casino. There was a financial rescue package known commonly as "TARP," the stimulus bill, health care reform and this year's measure to keep the government running. But the stakes have never quite been this high.
The problem is that the policy necessities (raising the debt ceiling) don't match the political realities as dictated by the midterm elections (voters electing scores of tea party-endorsed freshmen to Congress, demanding a curb on taxes and a manacle on federal spending). The consequences of those dynamics makes it challenging to mesh the policy necessity with political reality and produce a measure that can pass both houses of Congress.
For Republicans, there's an opportunity to cut $2 trillion over the next decade. Democrats have called for several hundred billion dollars in taxes to help with the equation. But that idea crashed headlong into a steely Republican resolve that opposes any tax increases.
However, there could be repercussions for the GOP if they can't accept those spending reductions. Republicans will have forgone an opportunity to make unprecedented government cuts. That's led many commentators to argue that the Republicans' anti-tax orthodoxy is like playing Russian Roulette.
But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) defended the approach.
"These cuts are relatively speaking here in Washington, historic," said Cantor. "But the American people see Washington running up over a trillion dollars in deficits on an annual basis. We have a lot more work to do."
Some of the work Cantor speaks of is merchandising a possible agreement to House Republicans. $2 trillion in cuts is a lot. But many conservatives want even deeper cuts. Plus, they want their leadership to force Democrats and the president to accept their positions.
One example of this comes from Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA). On Wednesday, Broun introduced a bill that would require Congress to LOWER the debt ceiling, not increase it. Braun wants to dial back the debt ceiling from $14.3 to $13 trillion.
"This bill offers a real and true solution for our fiscal dilemma," said Broun. "I wholeheartedly hope that my colleagues will either ante up - or try their luck at another profession."
In an interview, Broun noted that the mayor of one town in his district bludgeoned her city budget by a staggering 67 percent and hoped that Congress would take action just as drastic. However, Broun added that "some citizens didn't like the fact that she cut police."
But it's doubtful a plan like Broun's could pass the Senate or make it past the president's desk. That calls into question whether it's a "true" solution. Moreover, Broun's proposal defies his own party's leadership which intends to support a debt ceiling increase IF it can secure offsetting spending cuts and not raise taxes.
Then there's a proposed Constitutional balanced budget amendment. The House is slated to vote on the amendment later this month. But again, its chances for adoption are slim. Constitutional amendments need the approval of two-thirds of both chambers of Congress and three-quarters of the states. But that's not stopping some lawmakers from delivering an ultimatum on the debt limit.
"Politicians have to be forced to balance their books," said freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) who helped author this balanced budget amendment and won his race by less than 300 votes. "I'm not voting to raise the debt limit until we change the way we do business. We need to pass it out of both houses."
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) announced late Wednesday that there was an agreement among Republicans to generate $150 to $200 billion in non-tax revenues. Those revenues could take the form of auctioning off portions of the electromagnetic spectrum and the collection of fees for federal grants.
Such "fees" aren't the same as taxes which could poison an agreement in the eyes of some Republicans. Still, there are lawmakers who believe that some fees could act like a tax.
"The devil's in the details," said Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN), a freshman conservative who eked out an upset victory in a swing district last fall. "If you're having fees taxing job creators, that's not the way to go."
So the Republican brass faces a daunting task to secure a deal and then conjure the necessary votes. On Wednesday, Eric Cantor deftly deflected a reporter's question about "how much time" the GOP would need to sell a compromise to the rank-and-file.
"I would defer to the current whip on that one," said Cantor, drawing a laugh.
So today, President Obama is poised to offer a bolstered proposal. It's a plan that could trim Medicare and Social Security spending, bringing the total in savings to at least $4 trillion. The pitch is likely to include tax increases. Yet it could reflect aspects of a GOP-approved budget that restructured social safety net programs.
Meantime, liberal Democrats are expected to protest that the cuts are too deep and could jeopardize the "social compact."
Finding the votes for this could prove onerous. Perhaps as challenging as chasing down a phantasm in Ghostbusters.
Who they gonna call? Debtbusters?
Unless they do, a federal default could trigger the "mass hysteria" Bill Murray spoke of in Ghostbusters. And that's nothing until the country is paid a visit by the economic equivalent of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.