When it comes to the end-of-session loggerheads, what’s important to understand is that Congress isn’t simply “dysfunctional,” as it’s blithely labeled, but it’s being torn by forces that are real, historic, and unlikely to abate even with the 2012 election.
On Friday it seemed plausible to think that Congress was done for the year, save for House approval of extending the payroll-tax cut and unemployment insurance—but there were hints of surging discontent.
Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., on Friday said that he “couldn’t imagine close to full support” in the House for a two-month extension.
On Saturday, annoyed House Republicans revealed the extent of their anger in a call in which they made clear to Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, what they had told House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Friday: A two-month extension is a cop-out.
Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., later said: “I can’t accept the Senate version of the bill and I think the majority of us Republicans can’t accept it.”
By Sunday, the speaker had gotten the message. He declared that Congress should assemble a formal conference committee to hash out a deal in regular order.
“We’ve got to two weeks to get this done,” Boehner said on Meet the Press. “Let’s do it the right way.”
That didn’t sit well with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Reid negotiated the deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after Boehner departed the talks, challenging the Senate leaders to produce a plan.
“When we met last week, Speaker Boehner requested that Senator McConnell and I work out a compromise,” Reid stated. “Neither side got everything they wanted, but we forged a middle ground that passed the Senate by an overwhelming bipartisan majority.”
Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson later said that Reid “is happy to continue negotiating a yearlong extension as soon as the House passes the Senate’s short-term, bipartisan compromise.”
McConnell, caught between supporting a deal he brokered and standing by Boehner, struck a middle ground in his post-deal breakdown statement.
“The House and Senate have both passed bipartisan bills to require the President to finally make a decision on the Keystone XL jobs,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said. “The House and the President both want a full-year extension. The best way to resolve the difference … is through regular order, as the Speaker suggested.”
The emerging consensus among Republicans is to take the Senate’s two-month bill and the House’s one-year measure to conference and fight over the extension’s duration and how to pay for it. House Republicans believe they extracted a huge concession from Senate Democrats when they dropped the “millionaire’s surtax” as the payment method. A senior House GOP aide familiar with the emerging strategy summarized the situation thusly: “We have to get out of the cul-de-sac of the Senate only being able to produce the lowest-common denominator and then trying to force a terrible product on the House.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is known for not mincing words, went after Boehner’s integrity in a statement.
“He made public comments promising to live by whatever agreement the Senate reached,” Schumer said. Boehner “said, ‘If the Senate acts, I’m committed to bringing the House back—we can do it within 24 hours—to deal with whatever the Senate does.’ The Senate came to a deal, and now Speaker Boehner must keep his word.”
The showdown is just the latest battle in a larger war where skirmishes over smaller issues mask a larger divide. And so the fight last spring over the government shutdown got jammed up on small bits of discretionary spending and a GOP attempt to remove all federal funding from Planned Parenthood. The summer’s debt-ceiling crisis was all about cutting spending — resulting in the creation of that now infamous failure, the super committee.
This time, issues from the Keystone XL pipeline to riders on Cuban travel were irresistible chances for a barroom fight. Congress is divided not because it’s dyspeptic but because districts are more partisan than ever. And even when they’re not, members live in such fear of primary challenges that they hew to their party’s I.D. rather than go with their own moderate instincts. They’ve seen the likes of former Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, become road kill.
So many forces are converging to make end-of-sessions more and more painful. Without this freshman class, there would have been no showdown over the debt ceiling. Their volatility combined with a broken committee process, the end of earmarks—which had a way of smoothing over differences— and a willingness by all sides to use extraordinary means, especially the GOP’s flamboyant use of the filibuster, all led to this December stalemate. At a certain point, Congress begins to resemble the drunkard at last call, torn between wanting to go home and having a compelling need to stay.
Major Garrett, Dan Friedman, Shane Goldmacher and Ben Terris contributed
This article appears in the Dec. 19, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.