When the parties talk past each other

WHEN THE PARTIES TALK PAST EACH OTHER…. On CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday, we heard from the top two lawmakers on the House Budget Committee: Republican Chairman Paul Ryan and Democratic Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen. (Yes, it was a pleasant surprise to see a Democrat was invited onto a Sunday show.) The important part of their discussion was appreciating the competing priorities on display.

Ryan conceded that there’s no way the Senate will approve the House budget cuts. “My guess is we’ll probably have some short-term extensions while we negotiate these things — with spending cuts,” he said, explaining how a GOP-led government shutdown can be avoided.

Remember, there were basically three options here: (1) strike a deal for the rest of the fiscal year; (2) pass a temporary extension while negotiations continue; or (3) shutdown. Ryan, like the rest of the Republican leadership, now wants (4) policymakers can approve a temporary spending measure while negotiations continue, but only if it includes vague-but-deep cuts. The priority, as Ryan sees it, has to be slashing spending, laying off public-sector workers, and reducing the deficit.

And then viewers heard a different perspective.

Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen argued on Sunday that 800,000 Americans could lose their jobs if the GOP’s budget proposal was enacted, and warned against making “reckless” cuts to the federal budget.

In an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Van Hollen said that “everybody agrees we need to get the deficit under control,” but argued that drastic cuts in 2011 would damage an already fragile economy.

“The bipartisan commission on fiscal responsibility specifically warned against deep, immediate cuts in the year 2011. Why? Because it would hurt a fragile economy and put people out of work,” he told CBS’ Bob Schieffer. “In fact, there are estimates that about 800,000 Americans would lose their jobs if you do this in a reckless manner.”

Van Hollen criticized House Speaker John Boehner for what he described as a “callous” attitude toward the prospect of American job loss in the face of budget cuts, and argued that Republicans were taking the “wrong approach” toward mending the economy.

Van Hollen is right on the merits, and it was delightful hearing the argument actually being aired on a Sunday show where these observations are generally verboten, but the more important point here is that the Maryland Democrat was presenting a different goal: his priority is protecting the fragile economic recovery. Ryan’s goal is reducing the deficit Republicans helped create.

They were, in other words, largely talking past one another. This would be a challenge if the parties shared the same priorities, but disagreed on how to get from here to there, but it’s much worse when they’re not even reading from the same map.

Just a reminder: the House and Senate are in recess this week, and the funding for the government runs out on March 4 — a week from Friday. When lawmakers return to Washington, they’ll have literally five days to find some kind of agreement.