Bah-humbug mood prevails over Congress

December 17, 2009 4:41:49 AM PST
Ho, ho -- hold that holiday thought. Whatever seasonal spirit resides on Capitol Hill these days has been driven into the shadows by the churlish mood of lawmakers wrestling a last-minute work load and punting a whole other list of difficult issues into next year. Maybe, the thinking goes, there'll be more love around Valentine's Day.

It just might take that long for everyone to stand down. Behind carved office doors and out in the glare of the Senate chamber, tension has built for weeks as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid struggled to herd and to hold the 60 votes required to advance the health care overhaul that could affect every single American -- not to mention the 2010 midterm elections.

Bickering and general snappishness have bubbled over matters big and small, from policy to floor procedure and now, the prospect of negotiating the massive health care bill through Christmas Eve.

"Harry Christmas," staffers and even some lawmakers have taken to muttering in a dig at the besieged Senate leader. There's a degree of payback even in the pun: Four years ago, it was "Merry Fristmas," when Republican Leader Bill Frist kept the Senate in sullen session through the holidays.

Those who work in Congress are wary about griping publicly. At least they have jobs in a recession that's turned 10 percent of the nation out of work. That's tens of millions of Americans, which is to say constituents and eligible voters.

No one's denying their fondness for the recesses that Congress takes several times a year. December is one such traditional break, but it's not going to happen anytime soon.

The House spent Wednesday scrambling through its final business for the year, voting to pay for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ensure the jobless don't lose their benefits and prevent the government from defaulting on its mushrooming debt. The Senate was far behind with at least a week more of work on the health care bill and other must-do legislation, including the House-passed defense bill.

There will be two-month extensions on several major acts to expire at the end of the year, including an extension of unemployment benefits for some jobless Americans; a health insurance subsidy for the unemployed; highway and transit funding; the USA Patriot Act and a bill to shield doctors from a scheduled cut in Medicare payments.

With all of that high-pressure context, three matters seemed to bring tempers to a boil by midweek.

One is Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Independent who caucuses, by the skin of his teeth, with Democrats who desperately need him to get to the 60-vote threshold required to block filibusters. But Lieberman on Sunday threatened to launch one himself against the latest iteration of Reid's health care bill unless its provision to allow more seniors to buy Medicare was scuttled. Reid was surprised; the White House got involved. Within 24 hours, the provision was excised from the bill.

And Obama's liberal base was enraged.

"Boo, hiss!" growled multiple members of the House Democratic caucus in a closed meeting Tuesday night when Lieberman's name was uttered. One lawmaker half-kiddingly suggested posting the senator's photo and throwing darts at it, according to a knowledgeable official who was there but demanded anonymity.

At about the same time, Lieberman addressed his miffed Senate Democratic colleagues during a private meeting with Obama at the White House. With no public option in the health care bill, Lieberman pledged, he was on-board.

"I haven't really had a lot of fun the last couple of weeks," Lieberman told his colleagues, perhaps to counter the impression of some that he was enjoying the publicity.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, stood and said he wasn't having any fun either, Lieberman told reporters later.

"Why don't we all begin to have some fun," Obama replied, according to Lieberman. "Let's pass the bill."

The second injection of congressional Christmas blues came from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who has been primed to force the Democrats to read hundreds of pages of legislation on the floor in an attempt, he said, to make sure everyone understands what's in the health care bill. Given the nod Wednesday by Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Coburn deployed this procedural move on an amendment offered by one of the chamber's most liberal members, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Reid was proceeding with a bill that has not yet been read by any other senator and was only broadly understood, Coburn said. A clerk dispatched a Senate page to find copies of the amendment, and the recitation of every whereas and subsection commenced. Coburn briefly ducked out to meet with lobbyists from Oklahoma in the Senate Reception Room, the institution's shrine to bipartisanship.

How much of this move amounted to payback, Coburn was asked?

"No payback," he said.

In reality, the floor delay had no impact on the health care bill, whose prospects rest solely on Reid's ability to hold 60 votes in its favor.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., convened a news conference in which he read several "smoking tweets" by Republicans that indicated the obvious -- that members of the majority had long been planning to hold up debate this way.

As he spoke, Sanders withdrew his amendment and the standoff was over.

But the Senate's work was not. Reid's threat to work Christmas Eve cast a pall over the Hill, which teemed with stories of staffers improvising their gift-buying plans and holding off buying plane tickets home. The only people granted early leave, one Senate aide said, were those who were "(1) sick or (2) getting married."

Asked Wednesday if she had ever been so frustrated with the Senate in nearly two decades in Congress, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., thought a moment. "No," she said. "I have never seen such recalcitrance."


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