The Speaker's Lobby: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
12 December 2009
"It's the most wonderful time of the year. With the kids jingle-belling. And everyone telling you 'Be of good cheer.' It's the most wonderful time of the year."
- The Andy Williams Christmas Album, 1963
It's a good thing Andy Williams isn't singing that in the halls of Congress these days. I'm pretty sure someone here would cold cock him.
Few on Capitol Hill have hit the mall, trimmed the tree or put up the lights. For Congress, it's the most loathsome time of the year.
The grumbling on Capitol Hill this holiday season is the worst I've seen. Nerves are frayed. Tempers are short. Lawmakers, aides, lobbyists and journalists are exhausted as Congress rifles through a host of major legislative priorities before the end of the year.
Consider the following:
The marquee issue is the massive health care reform bill. It's arguably one of the most-significant and sweeping pieces of legislation Congress has considered in a century. The package casts a long shadow over other major issues that in the absence of other events, would command a significant deal of news oxygen.
For starters, Congress is working on a massive, $1.1 trillion spending bill to run many federal agencies and pay for Medicare programs. On top of that, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and a host of bipartisan House members are scrambling to jet next week to Copenhagen for the climate change conference. Meantime, Congress is preparing to raise the debt limit by nearly $2 trillion. If it doesn't do that soon, the government can't pay its bills and can't write Social Security checks. Political strategists are buzzing about the retirement this week of Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) and the announced resignation of Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI). He wants to spend more time back home campaigning for governor. The Congressional Black Caucus is pushing President Obama to target African American and Latino communities for economic assistance. The House of Representatives Friday just approved the most dramatic restructuring of financial rules since the Great Depression. Then a draft memo began floating around Congress late Friday afternoon signaling that the Obama Administration is considering sending Guantanamo Bay detainees to a prison in Thomson, IL. The House Homeland Security Committee took the extraordinary step Wednesday of issuing subpoenas to White House party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi for refusing to testify at a hearing. These were the first subpoenas ever issued in the history of that panel.
Believe it or not, an afterthought in this cyclone were multiple appearances on Capitol Hill by the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Lawmakers summoned McChrystal to explain President Obama's blueprint for war in Afghanistan.
Any one of these topics would make front-page news. But not during the avalanche now burying Capitol Hill.
It's said Congress doesn't do a whole lot. But when they do it, they sure do it all at once.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is sticking to his goal of passing the health care reform bill by the end of the year. Reid set the tone for the month when lawmakers reconvened after Thanksgiving.
"The next few weekends, plural, we will be working," Reid warned.
Rarely has a singular word achieved so much grouchiness.
So the Senate worked today. It meets tomorrow. It was in both days last weekend. And that's to say nothing of the Senate holding a major procedural vote at 8 pm on the Saturday night before Thanksgiving to launch the health care debate.
Plus, there's active chatter that the Senate could take the nearly unprecedented step of meeting during the week in between Christmas and New Year's.
"It's the hap-happiest season of all. With those holiday greetings. And gay happy meetings, When friends come to call. It's the hap-happiest season of all."
In early November, the House toiled around the clock for three days to pass its health care reform bill. The House finally adopted the legislation by the thinnest of margins late on a Saturday night. A few days later, Nancy Pelosi needled reporters who peppered her with questions about that Saturday night session.
"I also knew that the weekend was coming and you wanted to make family plans," Pelosi said. "How nice not to have that pressure. At least on the House side."
I pointed out to the Speaker that many scribes would be toiling that weekend in the Senate. Pelosi paused. And then smiled coyly.
"Well, have a nice weekend," she said, drawing laughter.
This year-end, parliamentary pandemonium isn't new. Congress always faces a crush of legislative must-do's in December. But, the end-of-year madness has evolved into a legislative tactic that pressures lawmakers to hold their nose and vote for controversial measures. Even if they don't want to. Just to get out of town.
December, 2005 was a case study in this. Republicans controlled both the House and Senate in those days. And the GOP was scrambling to find votes to approve drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The GOP saved one "must-pass" bill as the vehicle for the controversial drilling effort. In this instance, Republicans latched the ANWR drilling provision onto a $453 billion bill to run the Pentagon, fund troops in Iraq and send $29 billion to Hurricane Katrina victims. The theory is that any lawmaker would be hard-pressed to reject legislation that funds the military AND pays for reconstruction after the hurricane.
A simple majority rules in the House. So it had no problem adopting the defense plan with the ANWR add-on. This set up a Senate showdown. Backers of the drilling plan needed a supermajority of 60 votes to halt a Democratic filibuster. And the biggest advocate of the plan, former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), threatened his opponents when he realized he might not have the votes.
"We're going to face up to ANWR either now or Christmas Day or New Year's Eve or sometime, however long we stay in," Stevens thundered from his desk in the Senate chamber.
In the end, Stevens couldn't muster 60 votes and had to relent on Alaska drilling in the waning days before Christmas.
Come December, the majority party, be it the Democrats or Republicans, almost always keeps one legislative locomotive in their roundhouse. It's the last train out of town. "All aboard!" Here's your chance to pass your pet project. Just load it up in the baggage compartment. Even if you don't like the rest of the train.
The House this week approved the big spending bill that funds everything from the State Department to NASA to the FBI. But like the Republicans four years ago, the final train leaving the Congressional station this year will also be a defense spending bill. Democrats plan to Velcro onto that bill an unpopular provision to raise the debt limit. The thinking mirrors 2005: it's tough for lawmakers to vote against the military.
But House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) is coaching Republicans to vote against the plan.
"They have made a habit of taking defense appropriation bills, bills that fund the support of our troops, and adding on there the most distasteful things they can think of, trying to make sure they get it passed on the backs of our soldiers," Boehner said of the Democrats. "It's a bad way of doing business."
Of course, Boehner failed to mention the Republicans' December 2005 ANWR gambit.
In some ways, December is a essential fulcrum in the legislative process. Without it, Congress may never complete its work.
Which is precisely why the health care debate may rage into the final days of 2009.
Earlier this week, Harry Reid was poised to relent on his promise of working every weekend. Reid, who faces a tough re-election campaign next year, had a fundraiser scheduled in New Orleans this weekend. So Republicans chided Reid for going back on his promise of working weekends. Plural.
"The majority leader said we'd be working every weekend," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). "We take him at his word. We expect to be here this weekend and we look forward to it."
Reid countered that "this debate has come to a point rarely seen in the Senate." He added that his colleagues were trying to "embarrass" and "denigrate" him on the Senate floor.
So the Senate meets this weekend.
"There'll be much mistltoeing. And hearts will be glowing. When loved ones are near. It's the most wonderful time of the year."
The clock pressed against midnight on Saturday, November 7 as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi entered the Rayburn Room just steps from the House floor. The California Democrat basked in the afterglow of passing the health care reform bill by the tiniest of margins. A Herculean legislative achievement to be sure.
"Oh what a night!" the speaker exclaimed, grinning from ear-to-ear.
But then Todd Zwillich of New York's WNYC Radio dampened the mood by asking Pelosi if she exhausted all of her political capital on health care and a controversial climate bill.
"What are you? Scrooge early?" Pelosi responded sharply.
Reporters may have been "Scrooge early" back in November. But now it's "Scrooge present" in Congress. And on Capitol Hill, a far cry from being the most wonderful time of the year.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.
- The Speaker's Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the House dais. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.