Yvonne Abraham

Singing the same old tune

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / August 4, 2011

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To paraphrase Albin in “La Cage aux Folles,’’ the Massachusetts congressional delegation am what they am.

That show tune has been stuck in my head since our Washington congress-folk surprised absolutely no one with their votes on legislation to raise the debt ceiling and cut spending earlier this week.

Each played themselves to a T as they navigated the debate over the legislation, which averted default and handed a huge victory to Republicans, who got the spending cuts they’ve been baying for without the revenue increases also vital to addressing the deficit - for which they are largely responsible.

In a conference call Tuesday afternoon, Senator John Kerry, ever the pragmatist, was saying the deal was awful, but that his yes vote was the only responsible one, given that the Tea Party crazies (my word) were willing to drive the country into a ditch to make a political point.

“I voted not for the deal, but to avoid default,’’ he said, and then slammed Republicans who would ruin the economy rather than raise taxes on hedge fund managers: He called it “the most singular instance of legislative extortion I have ever seen in all the time I have been in public life.’’

But Kerry, who is widely seen as a prospect for next Secretary of State, was very careful to avoid criticizing President Obama, who had some of his Massachusetts colleagues spitting chips for ceding way too much, too soon.

Case in point: professional chip-spitter Mike Capuano.

“At some point in his presidency, he is going to have to find some backbone,’’ said the Somerville Democrat, who has never come within a thousand miles of careful.

“I would have voted against the legislation even if I had been the guy who killed it. You run because you believe in things: Medicare and Social Security and fuel assistance and senior housing.’’

Is Capuano as reckless as the Tea Partiers (even though he’s right on his analysis of the problem)? Not quite: The Somerville Democrat had a fallback rationale.

In a meeting with Democrats on Monday, Vice President Joe Biden urged them to vote for the legislation but said the president would use the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling if all else failed, Capuano said. That would have bought time for a more sensible deal, he believed.

Other veteran reps in the room went the same way as Capuano, though with less pugilism. One was Jim McGovern, who heard Biden say the same thing. The Worcester Democrat, whose commitment to the social safety net is almost religious, had but one choice, he said.

“The easy thing to do would be to go along with the president and the leadership,’’ he said. “But I’ve got to live with these votes. I didn’t come here to force more people into poverty.’’

And on they went. Republican Senator Scott Brown did what he usually does, resolutely refusing to take a position until he had no choice. Newbie Democrats Bill Keating and Niki Tsongas, and Stephen Lynch - all from more conservative districts - voted yes.

I get the pragmatic yes votes. I get the no votes by Democrats certain the president ultimately would not have allowed a default.

What I don’t get is where we go from here. Democrats and a legion of economists are rightly arguing that revenue increases are absolutely vital to fixing our budget problems.

Even before the super-duper dozen are appointed to come up with solutions by the end of the year, Republicans are saying they won’t consider a single cent in revenue increases.

It’s going to be a bumpy ride. The only predictable part of it is where our own gang of 12 will be. The Dems can keep singing “I am what I am,’’ but they’re going to have to do a much better job of explaining why voters should sing along.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at