Debate on Spending: "The Conversation Will Continue"
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) didn't want any part of the press corps that was camped out in the corridors near the Vice President's office in the Capitol, just off the Senate floor.
And for good reason.
Boehner didn't have anything to give them.
Vice President Biden traveled to the Capitol to caucus with Boehner and the rest of the House and Senate leadership late Thursday afternoon. It was the latest chapter in a titanic saga over spending priorities that threatens to shutter the federal government.
When the meeting adjourned, Boehner could have simply walked back across the second floor to his office on the House side of the Capitol. But the Ohio Republican knew he'd have to run the gauntlet of reporters swarming the perimeter of the Senate chamber.
So Boehner evaded the scribes altogether by exiting through a side door near the far end of the Senate chamber. He hopped on an obscure elevator and rode down to a lower level of the Capitol to walk back to his office from there.
And when I found Boehner downstairs, he simply wasn't going to take the bait.
"The vice president is going to put out a statement on behalf of all of us and that's all I'm going to say," Boehner declared.
And that's all Boehner did say, five or six times as he retreated to his office. He wouldn't characterize the meeting as a success or a failure. He wouldn't say whether the White House or Senate Democrats offered a new set of cuts or new numbers. He wouldn't comment on when or if the leaders might meet again.
"The vice president's office is putting out a statement for all of us," Boehner reiterated, exasperated by the third degree.
Now, a statement from Joe Biden, serving as a mouthpiece for wildly-divergent viewpoints held by the likes of John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is an interesting proposition. In other words, if Boehner is correct, whatever Biden says goes for the entire group.
The immediate question focused on what such a statement from Biden might say. Of course, reporters who've covered these sorts of negotiations over the years knew to anticipate certain buzzwords and phrases. Something like "it was a productive meeting" or "we're making progress." Maybe "I remain hopeful" or "I'm optimistic."
Biden's statement arrived less than a half-hour later. And you know things are serious when the usually loquacious Vice President of the United States is reduced to ten-word, empty-calorie phrase like this one: "We had a good meeting, and the conversation will continue."
This mystified the press corps. What kind of bromide wordsmithery is this? Devoid of all the traditional Washington argots?
"Good" certainly isn't "productive." And God forbid Biden actually use an antonym and characterize the pow-wow as "bad." The markets would cascade into a tailspin, fearful of a looming government shutdown.
And there wasn't even a commitment to another face-to-face negotiation. There would just be a continuation of the "conversation." Which could mean this isn't even a "negotiation."
Reporters tried to decipher this cryptic message from the typically glib Biden. They peppered House and Senate leadership aides in the hall with questions until everyone realized that no one truly knew the outcome of the meeting and whether it spelled good or ill.
All anyone could do is speculate. Because there was practically no substance against which to divine meaning.
It must be bad. They're so far apart.
It must be good. Because they were utterly mum. And that must mean there's something bigger on the table.
There is no immediate concern of a government shutdown. The current spending bill funds the federal government until March 18. And yes, a canyon separates House conservatives, who approved a funding measure that axes $61 billion in spending for the rest of the year and what Democrats and President Obama want.
But there are two more critical pieces of the puzzle. Lawmakers from both sides know they must have bona fide reform to entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid if they're to truly curb exorbitant spending. Secondly, Congress must figure out how it's going to deal with a vote later this spring to raise the debt ceiling (the highest balance the government is allowed to carry on its credit card). Lawmakers of both parties fear that touching entitlements could ignite a firestorm of backlash. And many freshman conservative lawmakers are loathe to authorize the U.S. to accumulate any more debt.
But if an arrangement is percolating that funds the government for the rest of the year, looks at entitlements and grapples with the debt ceiling increase, then perhaps it's best that everyone demur and say the "conversation will continue."
This trifecta of troubles is inexorably linked anyway. And the challenges posed by entitlements and the debt limit are far more complicated than the immediate skirmish over funding the government for the remainder of the fiscal year.
That's why House Republican leaders are poised to assemble another temporary spending bill to keep the government open for another couple of weeks after the new stopgap bill expires March 18. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) says the ad hoc approach isn't optimum. But it averts a government shutdown. And he's willing to author temporary bills, so long as they each trim spending.
"I would expect the House to continue its process of cutting $2 billion per week," said Cantor.
These temporary bills to run the government for short periods of time are known as "Continuing Resolutions." But in Washington, they're referred to as a "CR." And these CR's seem to work for now, keeping the government humming and sidestepping a shutdown.
This strategy seems to be en vogue. And not just when it comes to affairs of state.
At nearly the same moment Biden concluded his Capitol Hill sit-down, another meeting adjourned in downtown Washington. The National Football League and the Players Association announced something of a "CR" of their own. Facing a midnight deadline that could padlock the NFL, the league and its players agreed to extend their collective bargaining agreement for at 24 hours. Which, like the CR's keeping the government open, staves off an NFL shutdown for now.
Mediator George Cohen released a declarative, nine-word statement. But unlike Biden's vague articulation, Cohen's hinted that the NFL faced a more pressing crisis than the federal government right now.
"The parties have agreed to a one-day extension," said Cohen.
See, there's an immediate deadline. Cohen's description of the sessions lacks a characterization of the meetings being "good." Also absent is the promise that the "conversation will continue."
The negotiations between Congress and the White House aren't as desperate as the NFL's yet. And they could get there. But if NFL settles its impasse first, maybe the league can at least help the government with entitlement reform or the debt limit.