The budget feud on Capitol Hill is looking like those Vietnam War peace talks when negotiators bickered over the shape of the table.
House Republicans, after howling for years about Senate Democrats' failure to pass a budget, are refusing to work out a compromise now that Senate Democrats have finally passed a budget. Democrats, after insisting for years that a budget resolution was unnecessary, are outraged that Republicans aren't conferring with them to hammer out a resolution.
Republicans, after berating Democrats for enacting Obamacare and other bills behind closed doors with extra-parliamentary procedures, are insisting that any talks with Democrats be behind closed doors with extra-parliamentary procedures. Democrats, meanwhile, have suddenly become allergic to closed-door meetings and are insisting on a public “conference committee” and the “regular order.”
Republicans, after branding President Obama a tyrant, are now demanding that he show more leadership. Obama's aides, who overrode the legislative process whenever it was convenient, are now piously insisting on its integrity.
Into this farce on Tuesday strolled NBC News' Chuck Todd, who agreed to host a “discussion” with top budget negotiators at deficit hawk Pete Peterson's annual Fiscal Summit. But there was a catch: The parties wouldn't discuss the budget together.
Instead, they appeared on stage one at a time: Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the White House's Gene Sperling and a couple of others took their turn in the chair opposite Todd. “They all won't — they're not going to appear together, yet, but by the end — you watch,” Todd joked. “They'll solve this deal.”
Instead, Todd served as playground monitor, allowing each of the truculent children to argue his or her side of the story: He tried to take away Medicare! She took entitlements off the table! He's doing mean things with the debt limit! She didn't balance her budget! The only thing they seemed to agree on was that a “grand bargain” on the budget was unlikely.
The juvenile delinquency wasn't terribly surprising, given what happened Monday on the Senate floor. When Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., attempted to name conferees to work out a budget deal with the House, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, objected. Reid said Cruz was acting like “the schoolyard bully.”
“I wasn't aware we were in a schoolyard,” Cruz replied.
Valid point: In a schoolyard, adults are sometimes present.
Murray picked up the theme on Tuesday. “In a ‘regular order' world,” she said, “we would begin to sit down in an open, transparent way and work toward a compromise. But unfortunately at this point the Republicans are objecting.”
Ryan, up next, said that he would prefer to work things out on the side. “We don't want to go to conference just for the sake of going to conference,” he explained. Never mind that he had demanded for years that the Senate produce a budget so they could have just such a conference.
Murray, in turn, lamented that “by not having a budget today, what it means to businesses and families is that they're having to live with very bad budget decisions.” Never mind that she and her Democratic colleagues in the Senate hadn't produced a budget since 2009.
And even if they had a conference, what would they discuss? Murray said that Ryan's budget “voucherizes Medicare,” which is “an absolute non-starter.”
Ryan retorted: “That's not what our proposal does but it's what pollsters say to say.” Ryan reciprocated with his own non-starter: tax increases. “I'm not trying to get, you know, a squalor here, but the point is spending is the problem,” he said.
Perhaps he meant “squall”? The budget fight already has its share of intellectual squalor.
The exchange of schoolyard taunts continued with the other participant-combatants.
“The president's got to step up and show leadership,” charged Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “Not to even engage is a huge mistake.”
“The president has shown real political courage and leadership,” Sperling responded. “But if we don't see some of that same leadership and courage from their side it's going to be very hard.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., joined the brawl. “I heard Rob Portman talk about presidential leadership,” he said. “Let's remember in December the speaker said … he didn't want to meet with the president one-on-one anymore.”
Apparently, even talking about talking was too much for the budget negotiators. Moderator Todd, who began with high spirits, declared irreconcilable differences. “One budget's from Mars, one budget's from Venus,” he judged. “Maybe we're in the same universe, but not the same planet.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter at @Milbank.