The Forgotten Kumbaya

You know things have completely spun off the Capitol Hill rails when the usually chipper House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) makes a statement like this:

“I haven’t heard Kumbaya in so long I wouldn’t even recognize it around here.”

That’s Pelosi’s assessment after President Obama summoned her, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to the White House for a conversation about his “to-do” list Tuesday.

“No Kumbaya,” said Pelosi when describing the atmospherics of the conclave. “But hoagie-like could we say?”

Hoagie-like? We’ll try to explain that in a minute….

It has come to this:

Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on anything. And Boehner is not only talking about yet another need to raise the debt ceiling. But the Ohio Republican is insisting on a requisite number of spending cuts which would exceed the size of the debt limit hike.

Democrats don’t like this talk at all. And even though the debt ceiling won’t need an increase until late fall or winter, Democrats pushed back at Boehner this week.

“Only Congress of course can act to raise the debt limit and we hope they do it this time without the drama and the pain and the damage they caused the country last July,” said Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

In other words, the navigation equipment in Washington is now locked on autopilot collision course with the debt ceiling just like last summer over the debt limit. And nobody can agree on a way out.

But they can agree on one thing: hoagies.

Before the White House confab, Mr. Obama ducked out to Taylor Gourmet near the U Street corridor in Washington. The president snared a roast turkey hoagie with sharp provolone for himself. He then ran his tab to $62.79, ordering grub for the rest of his Congressional guests. Back at the White House, President Obama and the Fantastic 4 talked about the debt ceiling, student loans, the economy and energy. But despite those crucial topics, the only denominator of common ground: the president sure treated the Congressional brass to good eats.

“The Speaker was very pleased with the sandwiches served,” said a GOP aide following the meeting.

“We had hoagies, potato chips, chocolate chip cookies,” beamed Pelosi. “The hospitality at the White House is always excellent. Whether it was sandwiches brought in, or whatever. What was important is that I’m glad that the Speaker enjoyed the sandwiches.”

The federal government could default and the nation’s credit rating might plunge. But the White House is doing its best to maintain its Michelin rating.

Is it any surprise that Pelosi doesn’t recall the tune to “Kumbaya” any more? There’s a daily clash between the parties on Capitol Hill these days. About the only music emanating from Congress is the anguished canticle Let the Bodies Hit the Floor by Drowning Pool:

“One, something’s got to give.
Two, something’s got to give.
Three, something’s got to give.

Let the bodies hit the floor.
Let the bodies hit the floor.
Let the bodies hit the floor.”

Everyone knew a debt ceiling increase was coming at some point. But no one quite expected Boehner to roll out this idea on Tuesday at the 2012 Fiscal Summit in Washington. Democrats may contend Boehner was amping up the stakes between the parties in an election year. But Boehner was adamant he didn’t want to take the nation to the brink.

“I am not threatening default,” replied Boehner when queried about his demand for matching spending cuts.

Boehner may instead be mining the debt ceiling hike for something else.

The so-called “grand bargain” between Mr. Obama and Boehner fizzled last July. The country narrowly averted a default in August. The supercommittee foundered in the fall. And now the debt ceiling agreement requires massive, obligatory spending cuts starting in January unless Congress intervenes. Nothing has changed. But the problem hasn’t gone away. So Boehner hopes to exploit a debt ceiling increase.

“I’m trying to use the debt ceiling to deliver more change than it would force on its own,” Boehner said.

As Drowning Pool says, “something’s got to give.” And Boehner believes enterprising deeper cuts could help blaze the trail for a debt ceiling hike – but more importantly, forge an agreement on critical budgetary cuts which eluded Mr. Obama and him as well as the supercommittee.

Still, Boehner has another audience in all of this: conservative House Republicans loyal to the tea party.

Republicans didn’t want to approve the debt ceiling agreement last summer. Many campaigned against it. It was nearly impossible to find the votes in Congress to okay a debt limit hike. And the August 1 vote proved to be one of the most onerous votes taken in Congress in the past half-century. So what is Boehner’s strategy talking the debt ceiling now? This is setting the stage. No one likes surprises. In essence, Boehner is reminding his colleagues, hey, we have to do this again. And he’s starting early. On top of that, Boehner calculates he may be able to swivel this oppressive situation into something positive that courts support from both sides of the aisle. Finally, Boehner believes this could be an opportunity to shut off the mandatory “sequester.” The sequester is the arbitrary process that chops more than $1 trillion in discretionary spending in January unless Congress acts. The sequester is the penalty lawmakers imposed on themselves if the supercommittee failed. It did. So Boehner and others are seeking ways to modify the sequester. They want to find the necessary spending cuts – but do it in a thoughtful, responsible way. The sequester approach is merely a way to hack indiscriminately at spending with a meat cleaver.

Former Senate Republican Whip Alan Simpson (R-WY) crafted the fabled “Simpson-Bowles” budget reduction plan. Simpson knows how arduous a project it might be to alter the sequester process, cleaving $1.2 trillion during the lame duck session this fall.

“There will be hair and blood and eyeballs all over the floor,” Simpson told the Fiscal Summit.

Boehner understands the macabre scenario predicted by Simpson. So that’s why he’s trying to get in front of this melee at this early date.

“It’s a line in the sand. We’ve kicked the can down the road. Kicked the can down the road. Kicked the can down the road. And the American people think we’re crazy,” Boehner said.

And the only way to solve this is to have a donnybrook like the one Simpson envisions.

Is it any wonder Pelosi and others don’t know the melody to Kumbaya any more?

They’d better enjoy their hoagies now. A brawl is coming. No one’s going to want to have lunch. And it’s going to be so brutal that those who dare do will probably lose it.