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What's the Mood Inside the Capitol?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell passes reporters as he walks from the Senate floor to his office on Monday.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

photo of Michael Catalini
December 31, 2012

It’s New Year’s Eve, the countdown to the fiscal cliff is on, and the message from lawmakers is a collective "Let’s see what happens."

Here’s a stitched-together look at how members passed the day: Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia huddled near one of the fireplaces in the speaker's lobby, chatting with reporters—it was chilly on the House floor, he said. Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma talked into a TV camera near the statue of fellow Sooner-stater Will Rogers. At the North end of the Capitol, Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona ladled chicken Florentine soup into a throwaway container, grabbed a pack of crackers, and, when asked whether he was frustrated about the status of the fiscal-cliff talks, told a reporter, "Don't talk to me now, please."

So, yes, the mood on the Hill this New Year's Eve is a mix of idle tension and expectation. Even though Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden are engaging in legislative alchemy to negotiate a fiscal-cliff exit ramp and optimism reigns--for now--it's frustration that rules.

"There's only two people in this town trying to solve the problem. The other 534 are sitting around waiting for somebody to agree to something in a back room. It ought to be done out in the open. The public's business ought to be public," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in an interview.

President Obama said negotiators are homing in on a deal to prevent across-the-board tax hikes after midnight. Even though it's not done yet, details of what has been agreed to began to emerge. That's where the optimism comes in, especially for members in the majority, like Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

"This is democracy. I'm not frustrated at all. It's democracy, like Winston Churchill's description of democracy. There are fits and starts. But we all work it out," Baucus said.

The sourness of being left out of talks is not limited to Republican senators. Their minority counterparts in the House are left wondering what's next as well.

"Unfortunately, a majority of us are not involved in any of the negotiations, and we go back to our districts and people say, 'What are you doing? What's happening?' And we're waiting like anybody else," said Democratic Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland.

While frustration over the status of the talks is common in the Capitol, the blame for the stalled process lies depends on who's talking. For Cole, the issue lies in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

"When the president sends a budget up here that not a single Democrat votes for in two years, then you know we don't have a serious negotiating partner in the White House or the Senate," he said.

But for Connolly, the issue has been House leadership, which, he argues, has waited until too close to tonight's deadline to solve the cliff.

"The whole process is frustrating. I guess I start with being frustrated with [how] the House leadership here has squandered time. It's unconscionable. We have been out on recess for 15 weeks since August. I thought it was a crisis. It's not like we're caught unawares on New Year's Eve," he said.

The last-minute nature of the talks, say some members, is a symptom of a detiororating political center.

"It should have been worked out earlier. There used to be the center, which played a role when we got in these stalemates, but the centers are gone," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.

Kyl, who's retiring after 17 years in the upper chamber, expanded on his mid-ladle comments. Asked to gauge the level of annoyance at the process, he was eager to wrap up and spend the day, if possible, with family.

"I'm frustrated. We shouldn't have gotten ourselves in this position. My wife would like to see me on New Year's Eve and I'd like to be with my family, but it is what it is," he said.

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