Crisis Averted

Someday, I’ll find it.

I’ve looked. But to no avail.

Hidden somewhere in the United States Capitol is a secret air duct. And when lawmakers find themselves at loggerheads, the rhetoric intensifies and the tempers grow short before a big recess, this air duct begins to pump a rare effusion into the Capitol corridors.

The air duct spews the essence of jet fuel.

And if it weren’t for this concealed air conduit, Congress may never get its work done.

You see, Members of Congress are very special. They’re blessed with superior, legislative acumen, impressive oratorical skills and keen political instincts. But even Superman has a weakness: Kryptonite.

Lawmakers suffer from their own Achilles Heel.

The seductive scent of jet fuel mysteriously lures Members of Congress out of Washington and back to their states and districts. There’s a consequence for this, too. The jet fuel beacon somehow dislodges dozens of intractable issues and rapidly sets them on a glidepath to passage.

Money may be the mother’s milk of politics. But the nose of jet fuel is a parliamentary intoxicant.

To wit:

The government is scheduled to run out of money at 11:59:59 tonight. And on Wednesday night, the sides appeared deadlocked. All year long, House Republicans courted Democrats to help avert government shutdowns and raise the debt ceiling. It was thought that Republicans again needed Democrats to help fund the government for this round. But this time, Democrats balked. They didn’t like the House Republican proposal to renew the payroll tax holiday and the plan for jobless benefits. The inclusion of a provision to expedite construction of the Keystone pipeline further poisoned the entire arrangement for most Democrats.

This is why it appeared that a government shutdown was a distinct possibility on Wednesday night.

That’s until someone threw the switch and began puffing waves of jet fuel through the Capitol. The smell lured lawmakers into forging a compromise so they could get out of Washington for the holidays.

The shrapnel-studded rhetoric dulled by Thursday morning.

“There’s an easy way to untangle this,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) Thursday morning. “Everyone needs to step back and take a deep breath.”

Was it possible Boehner implored rank-and-file lawmakers to inhale a deep whiff of the jet fuel elixir aerosolizing the Capitol?

Who knows. But something happened on Thursday that completely changed the equation.

“I’ve seen this play before,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) who worked on Capitol Hill for years as an aide before becoming a Congressman. “It’s important never to underestimate the seduction of jet fuel. Members wanting to get out for a holiday is a powerful influence.”

Connolly asserted that this special Congressional balm always helps to “clarify everyone’s thinking and strike compromise.”

Which is precisely what they did Thursday.

“They have to weigh the need to get home to family and friends and constituents against staying to fight more,” Connolly said. “Sometimes people decide to stay and fight. Sometimes they decide the better part of wisdom is to compromise.”

On Wednesday morning, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) painted a stark picture of the road ahead. Democrats withdrew their support for the so-called “megabus” spending bill to fund the federal government through September 30, 2012. Asked if the Democrats’ actions constituted a “hostage situation,” Rogers replied “Yes, they are risking a shutdown.”

But barely 24 hours later, Rogers changed his tune.

“Things are looking up,” Rogers declared, adding that they were “close, close” to forging an agreement.

What changed?

A couple of things, besides the infusion of the jet fuel extract.

In the past few days, the success of the megabus spending bill became inextricably tangled with the outcome of the payroll tax extension. Earlier in the week, Congressional Democrats tried to gain some traction on wringing concessions out of Republicans on the payroll tax and unemployment insurance issues. But by Wednesday night, with the clock ticking toward a potential government shutdown, the GOP moved to prep separate legislation to avert a government closure. In essence, Republicans would scrap what they thought was a compromise and write their own bills. That would dare Senate Democrats to take it or leave it. If the Democrats didn’t budge, Republicans could fully saddle them with the blame for triggering a government shutdown. The dam also began to break when President Obama summoned Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to the White House Wednesday. Soon Democrats withdrew their demand that the government assess millionaires a surtax to pay for an extension of the payroll tax holiday. This helped to decouple fate of the payroll tax issue from the megabus spending bill to run the government. And by midday Thursday, a path was clear to move the megabus measure on Friday…if the sides could resolve a few nettlesome issues.

Big spending packages like this one always cover a litany of issues. They range from Pell Grants to science programs to funding the Indian Health Service. So it should come as no surprise that one of the most vexing topics which threatened to derail the package concerned the travel of Cuban-Americans to Cuba to visit their relatives. The government now permits extended family to travel to Cuba. But Republicans, like Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), who’s of Cuban descent, wanted to restrict such visits to once every three years.

Democrats tapped Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) as one of the Appropriations Committee members to broker the final version of the megabus package.

“Here we are,” lamented Serrano “The last real issue holding up the package is Cuba travel.”

But a few hours later, the Cuba travel restriction was out.

“This is huge,” exclaimed Serrano. “I’m tickled pink…whatever that’s supposed to mean.”

The GOP’s decision to withdraw limits on Cuba travel ultimately secured the essential Democratic support to complete the bill and put it on the House floor today.

After all, the House Republican leadership needs Democrats. Conservatives and tea party loyalists didn’t get a lot wanted in this legislation.

Certainly the bill cuts more than previous spending efforts. But many conservatives promised their constituents they’d defund “Obamacare” and place curbs on abortion. They weren’t successful, primarily because Republicans needed to moderate the bill to woo Democrats and successfully move the legislation through the Senate.

“In all of those areas, were able to successfully push back,” boasted Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). “This was an appropriations bill. This was not an attempt to create new policy.”

This outcome incensed conservatives like Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS).

“Based on the contents of this appropriations bill, you would not know that this is one of the most pro-life Congresses in history,” groused Huelskamp. “The package we are being asked to support essentially preserves the (House Minority Leader Nancy) Pelosi (D-CA) status quo.”

The House GOP leadership lost 101 Republicans on a “minibus” spending bill to avoid a shutdown in November. It’s lost 50-60 GOPers on other major bills this year, forcing them to turn to the Democratic side of the aisle for success.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) demurred when asked by a reporter on Wednesday about the vote count for this legislation.

“You guys know what this is like,” said McCarthy as he strode back to his office. “The first rule about ‘Fight Club’ is that you don’t talk about ‘Fight Club.’”

Regardless, the House and Senate are likely to pass the megabus bill today, keeping the government lights on. The Senate will likely toil throughout the weekend as leaders pursue a compromise on the payroll tax issue. The House could cut its members loose for the weekend today with the intention of recalling lawmakers early next week if the Senate finds a middle ground on the payroll tax holiday.

“There is no reason for us to sit around this weekend waiting on the Senate,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).

So despite all of the machinations and near-unprecedented brinksmanship, it appears the end is in fact near.

None of this surprises Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. Dicks has served in Congress since 1977 and was a Congressional aide prior to that.

“This has happened many times. This (endgame) is not unusual,” Dicks said. “You just have to have patience and make sure you stay until the bitter end.”

Or until someone revs up that secret air duct and smothers the Capitol with a bouquet of jet fuel.