When House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) assumed the lectern in the House Radio-TV Gallery Studio for a Friday morning press conference, he was well aware of the fate that befell Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) just 12 hours before on the other side of the Capitol.
On Thursday night, the Senate repelled both Democratic and Republican efforts to renew a tax break known as the "payroll tax holiday." About 160 million Americans scored a $1,000 tax bonus this year because Congress temporarily slashed the tax workers pay on their earnings. The tax levied on wages funds Social Security. The payroll tax reverts to its old level if Congress doesn't act by December 31.
Everyone in the Senate expected lawmakers to scuttle both the Democratic and Republican versions of the payroll tax extension. But few suspected there would be such an insurrection among rank-and-file Republicans on the plan propounded by McConnell. Twenty-six Senate Republicans bucked their leader while just 20 voted yes. Such yawning fissures are rare among GOP ranks. And that's why reporters wanted to know if Boehner was girding for intransigence from Republicans when the payroll tax extension materialized in the House.
"Does that make your job to work out something here harder," I asked Boehner.
The Ohio Republican started to give what's known on Capitol Hill as the "Boehner Shrug" and added "who knows."
Another reporter tried a similar question, also citing the Senate GOP revolt.
"Do you expect to see that kind of resistance?" asked the scribe.
"I would hope not," Boehner replied. "We're going to have that conversation with our members as soon as we leave here and you'll know more about it soon."
Boehner and others then adjourned for a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the basement of the Capitol. Reporters learned little Friday about the payroll tax plan Boehner alluded to. Instead, Republicans gave the press corps an earful about reservations they had with the proposal.
"There was a divide between the rank-and-file and the leadership. There was a lot of disquiet in that room," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). "We're not serious about this debt and deficit if we're carrying on the way we're carrying on right now."
Flake's one of the most-ardent fiscal hawks in Congress. And he's concerned about how Republicans would patch the revenue hole opened up by additional tax breaks. After all, most lawmakers favor tax cuts. But that makes for a tough situation when the federal deficit soars to $15 trillion and voters rewarded the GOP with control of the House in an effort to restore fiscal discipline.
Flake said the House Republican brass would offset the fiscal crater created by the payroll tax holiday with what he dismissed as "gimmicks" strung out over a decade.
"Unless we have the courage to address entitlement reform, I think they're wrong to extend the payroll tax holiday," Flake said.
While the GOP plan met a frosty reception, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) minimized some of the grumbling.
"I've seen (conference meetings) a lot more upset than that," said Camp of the turbulence.
The potential for upheaval on Capitol Hill is palpable as the daylight grows short, the calendar creeps toward Christmas and the legislative docket creaks from the weight of "must-pass" issues that need to be resolved by the end of the year.
"We cannot go home for Christmas unless we pass this legislation," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) about the payroll tax extension. "The clock is ticking."
But the Yuletide legislative turmoil could be particularly acute on the GOP side of the aisle this year and may not be limited to consternation over the payroll tax holiday.
Also looming is a debate about funding the government past December 16.
Only three of the 12 annual appropriations bills which allocate federal funding have become law. The entire slate of bills was supposed to be finished October 1. So right now, House and Senate appropriators are eyeballing what's colloquially described in Washington as an "omnibus" spending bill to potentially zip the remaining nine spending measures together in one gigantic, catch-all package. This must be done by December 16 or the government could close.
Considering the stalemate between the parties in April which almost triggered a government shutdown, there's not much chatter about that scenario right now. But conservatives in the House are disappointed that the GOP hasn't done more to eliminate spending. Moreover, they're upset that the Republican leadership may strip out key policy provisions in the appropriations bills just to keep the government open for business.
This is why some lawmakers say the current contretemps is reminiscent of the springtime imbroglio.
"It shouldn't be, but it's turning into that," said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-OH), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. "It means (some Republicans) are dug in and are not flexible."
The two most-controversial appropriations bills are the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies package and the Labor, Health & Human Services, Education and Related Agencies measure (known on Capitol Hill as "Labor-H"). In those bills, it's doubtful Republicans can halt funding for Planned Parenthood and won't defund the health care law. Why? Because Republicans couldn't pass the bill if they preserved those provisions. Why? The GOP needs Democratic votes.
Here's how it works:
House Republicans could defund Planned Parenthood, strip the health care funding and push for dozens of other policy "riders" that would be anathema to Democrats. But then they'd lose almost all Democratic support for the bill and the process would stall in the Senate.
To some Republicans the Budget Control Act and the bill to avert a government shutdown in April are part of the problem.
The Budget Control Act is the legislation Congress approved in early August to hike the debt limit. The spring package that sidestepped a government shutdown set this year's spending level at $1.043 trillion in discretionary spending (meaning it doesn't include entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid). But Boehner couldn't pass those bills with just Republican support. For instance, 66 Republicans bolted on the Budget Control Act because they couldn't support a debt ceiling increase and argued the House hadn't cut spending deeply enough. But the support of 95 Democrats assured passage.
There's also skepticism about the $1.043 trillion figure as the mandated spending cap. The inclusion of disaster aid could trigger arguments over actuarial mechanisms used to deduce that total. There are some worries that the final figure could come in above $1.050 trillion when including disaster assistance.
Boehner dismisses those suggestions.
"The $1.043 (trillion) is going to happen," insisted Boehner when asked about the spending ceiling.
But like the measures to avoid a government shutdown and the debt ceiling agreement, the GOP could again be seeking Democratic votes amid Republican dissent.
When asked Friday whether the Republican braintrust had reached across the aisle for help passing the big package, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) responded that they hadn't.
"But they will," added Hoyer with a grin.
A precursor of this came on November 17 when the House sewed three of the 12 spending bills together in what's called a "minibus" to fund a few sectors of the government. The House approved the minibus 298-121. But Republicans had to lean on Democrats to pass the bill. Only 133 Republicans voted yes. That means about 40 percent of the House GOP Conference voted no. Democrats made up the difference with 165 yeas, outpolling the Republicans by 32 votes.
"We are prepared to cooperate on behalf of the welfare of our country and of our people," said Hoyer, the top House Democratic vote counter.
It's not pleasant for Republicans having to rely on significant Democratic support while the core of the GOP base repeatedly abandons ship on multiple, pivotal votes throughout the year. Of course, some would argue that despite deep political divides, bipartisanship is actually prevailing in Congress.
But that doesn't do much to satisfy conservatives.
A senior Republican aide confided that even though the GOP has "altered the conversation" about spending in Washington, the Republicans "haven't had a lot to get excited about this year" and that their "patience is wearing thin."
Boehner knows it's likely Republicans will need help from Democrats on the "omnibus," no matter what form it takes. But that's why the GOP leadership hopes to get buy-in from the rank-and-file on the payroll tax holiday or any other big-ticket issue that comes down the pike this month.
Friday's murmuring over the Republicans' payroll tax extension proposal was far from a furor. But it was yet another instance that demonstrated a consistent restlessness that's prevailed all year long on the Republican side of the aisle.