KANSAS CITY — On opposite sides of the same great Midwestern skyline, two congressmen who voted “no” on the agreement that staved off default on the nation’s debt are back home now, trying to explain to constituents what happened last week in Washington.
Veteran Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) and his colleague, freshman Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), opposed the last-minute compromise for reasons as different as the districts and political philosophies they represent. But as their colleagues across the nation are likely to learn as they spend August at home, Yoder and Cleaver are finding that their Kansas City constituents are worried not only about specific deals, but also about Washington’s ability to ever agree on how to shape the nation’s future.
“Businesses work on plans,” Jack Hiles, a veteran and former worker for General Electric, told Yoder on the Kansas side of the region. “And I don’t know that Congress really has a plan right now. Every time somebody comes up with something that looks like a good plan, the opposition just starts crunching it until it just turns into a damn argument.”
Across the river on the Missouri side, Mary Lim-Lampe had a question for Cleaver.
“Is it possible to find a third way here?” she began. “Is there anyone willing to do any kind of deal-cutting right now that we could help you with?”
Yoder and Cleaver might be considered among the 80 percent of the public that disapproves of the way Congress is doing its job. But their divergent reasons for opposing the debt deal signal the difficulty in finding a resolution as the debate over cutting the deficit moves forward.
Cleaver, 66, who heads the Congressional Black Caucus and called the debt deal a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich,” said the final deal would cost jobs, hammer the poorest, further stall the economy and likely inflate the deficit, all while asking nothing of the wealthiest Americans.
“We’re in a situation where people are voting against their own best interests, which is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” Cleaver, a former Kansas City, Mo., mayor, told a union audience.
Yoder, a 35-year-old Republican who has served in Congress for eight months, invoked Popeye’s moocher friend J. Wellington Wimpy in explaining he was “not persuaded by the logic that Congress would gladly pay Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
“What we ended up with was such an abdication of the responsibility we have to solve these issues,” he said. “I just couldn’t be there.”
Both Cleaver and Yoder represent the greater Kansas City region — at some spots, their constituents can literally wave to one another across State Line Road, which divides Kansas and Missouri.
But those constituents also represent the divergent interests that have made governing so difficult: mostly urban vs. mostly suburban; poor and middle class vs. wealthy; folks who wonder why government can’t be more like a business vs. those who wonder whether government has lost its compassion.
For his first event since the vote, Yoder gathered a small group of business people at Gates Bar-B-Q, in one of the poorer parts of his district. Owner George Gates worried that the provisions of the health care bill will force him to lay off employees. Valerie Mussett said if the government were like her business, there would simply be cuts across the board.
“The government’s the only organization in the world that doesn’t have to be accountable,” said Dan Lowe, a local real estate developer. “They can just spend however much money they want and not be accountable for it.”
That was the dominant theme as Yoder moved around his district, which stretches from Democratic-leaning downtown Kansas City, Kan., to the liberal academic community around the University of Kansas in Lawrence, his alma mater. But most voters live in Johnson County, a Republican-dominated place that is home to Kansas’s priciest neighborhoods, best schools and a clutch of corporate headquarters, including Sprint and Applebee’s.
To everyone’s surprise, President Obama eked out a close victory here in 2008. But when the district’s Democratic representative retired two years later, Yoder won the general election by 20 points.
Tall and rail-thin, he is a fifth-generation Kansan — there’s a town named after his Amish ancestors. But he is a Methodist, a former KU student body president, a lawyer and politician all his adult life. He is also a former College Democrat and was known as a moderate Republican in the Kansas legislature. Since the debt limit compromise passed comfortably, some critics say his no vote was an easy way to appease conservatives who will be even more dominant in the district after it is reapportioned.
But Yoder hardly sounded as if he was courting the tea party in his appearances. He does not call the health-care bill “Obamacare,” and he blamed both the administration and congressional leadership for creating a “hysteria” that he said got in the way of reasoned debate.
He said he is one of six GOP members of the House who have not signed the no-taxes pledge and says House Republicans made a mistake by giving up on trying to find a “grand compromise” with Obama. “It’s going to hurt us with independents,” he said.
“I’m someone who doesn’t ever want to be: ‘You’re a Republican, so you have to vote this way; You’re the tea party candidate, so you have to vote this way,’ ” Yoder said.
Talking to business owners, veterans and a news radio show, he preached the horrors of Washington spending and said the economic reaction to the compromise showed it was no “silver bullet.”
“You were right and the stock market told you that you were right,” John C. Weed Jr. said to Yoder at an American Legion Hall meeting.
Yoder had heads nodding in approval at a gathering of Realtors as he reeled off a series of statistics about what he considers Washington extravagance, borrowing 42 cents of every dollar spent, he said, and racking up “40 grand a second” in new debt, which will total $17 trillion by the end of the year.
“Jeez,” someone in the audience marveled.
The only note of challenge came from audience member Rob Curtis, who noted Yoder’s negative vote on lifting the debt ceiling.
“Once you decided to vote no, what was your Plan B if it failed?” Curtis asked. “I understand principles, but there’s an old saying, it’s tough to cut principles up on a plate.”
Asked about the matter later, Yoder said the administration could have prioritized spending to make debt and Social Security payments, perhaps with spending extensions until a better deal was reached.
“To spend six months and anger Americans with this debate, and then to come up with a product that also angers them, you at least want to know if I’m going to take an important vote, that we actually solved a problem,” he said.
Yoder expects to face less friendly voters at an upcoming town hall meeting, events that have often become raucous, with people at one hoisting signs that said, ‘Yoder hates old people,’ ” the congressman told the Realtors.
He will try to explain what he has found in such a short time in Washington.
“They hold Social Security recipients and the markets as hostages and they say, ‘If you don’t vote, I’m going to shoot the hostages.’ Well, why are you shooting hostages, period? Why do I have to negotiate with those kinds of tactics?”
On his first day home since the debt vote, Cleaver boarded “the Hoopty,” a small RV he uses to tour his district and which is painted with the words “compassion, civility, courage,” three concepts he feels are dying in a Washington he likened to a hive of bees more inclined to sting than make honey.
“Those are some mean bees,” Cleaver said, and began a day aimed at rallying his bewildered Democratic base, heading first into an old African American church, where he was greeted warmly as he stood up to speak, glancing down at handwritten notes on the debt deal, which included these: “NOT FAIR, NOT BALANCED.”
In tones of barely contained frustration, he explained his view that the deal would do little to reduce the deficit and much to hurt the poor, the sick, the elderly, veterans. He dwelled on the point that 1 percent of the population controls 33 percent of the nation’s wealth, and that the 1 percent are not sharing the pain. He went through unemployment figures that he says the deal will make worse.
“So I’m not going to sit here and vote for something I know is increasing pain in the community,” Cleaver, a former preacher, said before opening the floor to questions.
Hands shot up.
“Where is the outrage in this country?” asked Charles Hazley, a former city councilman. “Who is representing poor people? We ought to be marching on Washington at this stage.”
Cleaver nodded — “You’re absolutely right,” he said — and then explained the painful reason why many Democrats have kept quiet.
“We’re in an awkward position,” he said. “Nobody wants to do anything that can be used by the tea party to hurt the president.”
Back in the Hoopty, he said that his answer did not satisfy him morally. He said, in fact, “there’s an internal fight going on inside my soul,” and that despite all the attaboys he’s getting for the “Satan sandwich” comment, “the part of my soul that says I should speak out is losing.”
But now he gathered his remaining enthusiasm and walked into Papa Lew’s for another round of explaining. Not fair, not balanced, he said as a dozen people nodded. One percent controls 33 percent, he said, as spoons clinked against coffee mugs. A woman raised her hand.
“Do the cuts not mean that more people will be laid off from jobs?” asked Diane Nunnelee, a local pastor.
Yes, Cleaver nodded, that’s what it means. A man raised his hand.
“Is there something we can do to promote the values we believe in?” he asked.
Cleaver gave another answer that did not really satisfy him, one he said was based more on wild optimism than anything concrete.
“Hopefully,” he said, “Americans will use this chaotic period as inspiration to vote in 2012.”
A woman raised her hand.
“I think we’re seeing the problem with right-wing crazies, but we’re also seeing Democrats so willing to cave in,” she said.
Fans whirred. Cleaver agreed with this also, but had few answers to offer. He headed to another coffee shop to meet local advocates for the disabled.
“Across the board cuts make no sense,” he told them. “You can’t say cutting aid to the disabled is in the same category as buying screwdrivers.”
He stopped back at his congressional office, where an intern had tallied eight “thanks” for Cleaver’s no vote and one “no thanks” that called him a “demonic Democrat.”
After an interview with a local news station — “We’re at this weird period of time where we’re turning against ourselves,” Cleaver mused after the camera lights dimmed — he headed to a union hall, where a leader said he was polite for calling the deal a Satan sandwich, when actually it was an “[expletive] sandwich.” People cheered.
Not fair, not balanced, Cleaver told the crowd. The cuts will cost jobs — “jobs, jobs, jobs,” which is what Americans want most, he said.
A woman raised her hand.
“Is it possible for you to have lunch with Barack . . . and show him he doesn’t have to be afraid of these people?” she asked. “We will support him. We will fill the halls. But we cannot have our people support him if they don’t have any faith or hope.”
Which is what Cleaver was searching for himself as he headed back to his office, not too far from State Line Road. He said he knew Yoder a little bit, that they would both take the 12:40 flight from Kansas City to Washington most Mondays.
“I think he is a decent guy,” Cleaver said. “But some of his supporters would be angry — angry — if he became too friendly with me.”
He bit into a sandwich, of the submarine variety. He shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Now it’s just mean. It’s just mean.”
Barnes reported from Kansas City, Kan., and McCrummen reported from Kansas City, Mo.