WASHINGTON — How do you comment on debt-and-budget negotiations that are being conducted in secret, with little to go on save rumors and leaked tidbits? And what if you are a ranking member of Congress who is out of the loop?
That was Rep. John Larson’s challenge Thursday, when the Democratic Caucus chairman stepped into the House Speaker’s Lobby and was immediately swarmed by reporters hungry for news about the protracted talks on the debt-ceiling and the budget.
“A lot of what we’re seeing is theater,” Larson offered.
Theater? Is the president’s reported offer to cut to Social Security theater? asked a radio reporter, edging his fluffy microphone closer to Larson’s mouth.
“The president has widened the deal,” started another, Politico’s Jake Sherman.
“Well, do you know what the president has put on there?” Larson answered. “Because I don’t … “
Sherman started to respond in detail, before the conversation took a very circular turn. Finally, Larson said he simply didn’t know what the president had put on the table.
“Is that frustrating to you?” Sherman asked. “You’re in the leadership,” Sherman noted, as if Larson needed to be reminded that he holds the House Democrats 4th ranking slot.
That used to mean something, when the Democrats were in the majority in the House.
Not so much.
“Of course it’s frustrating. I read about it in the paper this morning, probably about the same time you did,” Larson answered. “So yeah, it’s frustrating. We don’t know what’s in there, so it’s hard for us to respond.”
Moments before, President Barack Obama had just been in the White House press briefing room, where he described a debt-negotiating session with congressional leaders Thursday morning as “very constructive.”
That session included the House Republican speaker and Senate leaders, along with two top House Democrats–Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, and Steny Hoyer, the minority whip. But Larson’s hadn’t been de-briefed by them yet.
He had read the Washington Post story, among others, that said the White House was talking about possible trims to Social Security, in exchange for possible tax increases.
“We only know from the headlines and the frenzy that’s caused,” Larson said of the reports about changes to Social Security. “And I can tell you the gut visceral feeling of the caucus is that these are the core values of the Democratic caucus, the Democratic Party and I dare say the American people.”
Could he rule out voting in favor of benefit cuts to Social Security? asked David Lightman, a former Hartford Courant reporter who now works for McClatchy.
That one was easy.
“Yes,” Larson said, and ditto goes for Medicare benefits. “There’s a lot of things with respect to Medicare and Social Security that perhaps can be changed,” he said. “But the benefits to people? I think people are pretty hard core in our caucus on that.”
Is he worried that Obama is going to “triangulate” and “sell out the base.”
“That would never cross our minds,” Larson cracked, before saying yes, Democrats are indeed worried about that.
Another reporter asked about the president’s willingness to negotiate with Republicans over tax reform.
“What is he willing to give them?” Larson asked.
“Well, it sounds like…” the reporter began. Larson didn’t let her finish.
“That’s right, sounds like,” Larson said, tugging on his ear as if in a game of charades. And that was probably as apt an answer as any Larson could have given.
“We don’t see anything,” he said. “When we get something before us that we can actually comment on, other than theater and drama…” He didn’t finish the sentence, relieved as his staff pulled him back onto the House floor to cast a vote.
And summer has just begun.