"This Congress has a bad case of deadline-itis," declared Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) at a meeting of the House Rules Committee Monday night.
Throughout the year, the House and Senate have exhibited symptoms of intense partisan rancor, inflexibility and white-hot rhetoric. But as Congress struggles to keep the government running past Friday, renew a payroll tax cut by December 31 and extend unemployment benefits, Hastings believes he's diagnosed the political malady afflicting Capitol Hill: "deadline-itis."
Congress repeatedly flirted with disaster in 2011. It careened to the brink with potential government shutdowns, a debt ceiling crisis and a failed effort by the supercommittee to make historic cuts. So with sands slipping through the hourglass this December, it's only natural that Congress would once again find itself in this contorted position with only days to spare.
This year's Congress is the Indiana Jones of Congresses. It exists in a perpetual state of distress. It repeatedly dashes out of some underground temple before being crushed by a gigantic, booby-trapped boulder.
And this scene of mayhem is stuck on a loop, playing over and over again.
On Tuesday, the House of Representatives is set to debate and vote on the payroll/unemployment package. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) sweetened the deal for reluctant Republicans by tacking on a provision which mandates the expedited construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S.
The decision to marry the payroll tax and unemployment issues to the pipeline dispute simultaneously incensed Democrats and buoyed Republicans. Democrats also decried what they believed was the paucity of the unemployment extension.
"We're headed for a confrontation on the floor tomorrow," warned Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
But Levin was wrong. A conflagration was just minutes away.
The House Rules Committee summoned Levin and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) to a procedural hearing Monday night. In most cases, the Rules Committee must first draft guidelines for legislation a day before it goes it hits the House floor.
At the hearing, Camp, spoke glowingly about how the measure would strengthen the economy and protect taxpayer dollars. But when it was Levin's turn, the Michigan Democrat condemned the legislation as "reckless, heartless and mindless."
"Your testimony is not quite as ebullient and encouraging as that of Mr. Camp," noted Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-CA).
That was an understatement.
It's rare for two lawmakers from the same state to hold the positions of chair and ranking minority member of the same Congressional committee. But that's the case with Camp and Levin. And despite their Wolverine State ties, the two couldn't offer more different interpretations of how the legislation would impact those out of work.
The duo sat just inches apart at the cramped Rules Committee witness table, answering questions from lawmakers seated on the dais.
"This, Mr. Dreier, is the highest number of long-term unemployed in the record of this country," said Levin, arguing for a longer extension of jobless benefits.
"And many on your side said if we only passed stimulus, the unemployment rate would be six percent," interjected Camp.
Camp's point drew the dire of the usually mild-mannered Levin. He grabbed the microphone in front of him and turned to his colleague.
"We can argue...I'll take back my time," Levin snapped, rapping his hand on the table.
"Your policies certainly haven't worked very well," retorted Camp.
"Let's not argue about the policies because I think you're wrong!" snorted Levin.
"It's a fact!" parried Camp, his voice rising over Levin's. "You promised a six percent unemployment rate!"
At that, Levin slapped the table twice and turned toward Camp.
"Focus on the unemployed in the state of Michigan!" admonished Levin.
"I am focused!" Camp replied.
"You're not!" disputed Levin.
"Had we not passed the stimulus bill, we'd be better off," Camp pronounced.
The men stared daggers at one another briefly.
It's likely the House will pass the bill Tuesday and kick it over to the Senate.
"The House will do its job. It's time for the Senate to do its job," proclaimed John Boehner.
And that's what the Democrats are banking on.
"The good news is that this will never make it past our colleagues in the United States Senate," boasted Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), the top Democrat on the Rules panel.
With Democrats at the helm in the Senate, opposition there is even more intense than in the House. But another issue cropped up there Monday night which could spell the endgame for the payroll tax package as well as a massive, "megabus" spending bill to fund the government through next fall.
This is where Hastings' "deadline-itis" kicks in.
Signals emerged late Monday that a year-end $1 trillion-plus spending bill could be in trouble despite furious talks between the House and Senate. Both bodies must approve the measure by Friday night at 11:59:59 pm or the government could find itself without money to operate.
House appropriators planned to post the final version of the spending package online Monday night with the intention of bringing it to the floor Wednesday. House Republican Conference rules dictate that legislation be posted for parts of three days before lawmakers may consider the measure. But appropriators announced Monday night the bill wasn't ready.
That means if the House can't present the bill until Tuesday, it's doubtful it can debate the legislation until Thursday. As a result of that, the Senate might not be able to take it up until Friday, leading us back to "deadline-itis."
One source familiar with the appropriations process described the delay as clerical, saying the sides were "crossing 't's' and dotting 'i's.'" An Appropriations Committee aide pointed out that there was a "broad agreement" between the sides, but noted that the Congressional Budget Office had not yet assigned a final price tag to the legislation. But on Monday night, it became clear that policy issues continued to dog the bill as Democrats sought to protect their interests, much the same way Republicans protected their interests on the payroll measure.
House Republicans lost 101 of their own members on a "minibus" spending bill to keep the government operating in November. Such mass defections meant that the GOP majority needed significant Democratic assistance to pass the bill. That's the same case here as a chunk of House Republicans simply won't vote for the legislation because the spending cuts aren't deep enough.
That said, many Democrats are reluctant to back the megabus spending bill because of a litany of issues critical to the left. They range from abortion to defunding parts of the health care to protecting the environment. In the meantime, Republicans need those elements in the bill to court their own.
"There are still major outstanding issues that need to be resolved," said a senior Democratic aide. "Republicans are trying to force through extreme policy riders on women's health, the environment and other issues to appease the tea party. Democrats will not leave town until we guarantee that middle-class families do not get hit with a thousand-dollar tax hike on January 1st. We hope Republicans will work with us to prevent this middle-class tax hike, instead of rushing for the exits."
In essence, Democrats could be trying to exact a price from Republicans. It comes down to political horse-trading. If Republicans want diminished unemployment benefits and the Keystone pipeline, then they have to budge on the policy riders in the megabus. And filleting the megabus bill of particular policy directives could prove devastating to the GOP. After all, Republicans found little success in their efforts to defund the health care law and prohibit money from going to Planned Parenthood.
Republicans scoffed at the last-minute Democratic tactic to stall the megabus bill.
"There is bipartisan, bicameral agreement to enact the remaining appropriations bills. The House is ready to file and pass the conference report," said a senior Republican staffer.
This late-breaking development could convolute what's already a jumbled December.
"We are the last bastion of getting something done here," lamented Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), the leading Democrat on the Appropriations panel last week.
Political incineration of the megabus spending bill could doom Congress to concoct emergency legislation to avert a shutdown at the literal 11th hour later this week.
So Congress may find itself in another fix. That's a position lawmakers have been in frequently this year, narrowly escaping the boulder as it hurtles toward them...as they suffer "a bad case of deadline-itis."