I made it to a Christmas party a few weeks ago. And around 12:30 am, the party began getting sloppy. Many guests were intoxicated. Some conversations bordered on hostile. Guys began aggressively hitting on the girls.
It was clearly time to leave.
Which I did.
Congress is a lot like that Christmas party this holiday season. The hour is growing late and things are getting messy. People have had a lot to drink. Some of the guests are staggering around. And fights are breaking out.
But I can't leave this party.
At least until if and when the House and Senate forge a pact that renews the payroll tax cut, extends unemployment insurance, compensates physicians who see Medicare patients and solves the fate of the beleaguered Keystone pipeline.
A clearly agitated Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) strode toward a bank of elevators on the second floor of the Capitol Friday night. Senate Republican leaders had just presented a compromise measure to the rank-and-file which would re-up the payroll tax for two months, extend unemployment insurance and expedite the construction of the Keystone pipeline.
A reporter asked McCain if they had a deal.
"Whenever there's a holiday in the way, we always do," smoldered McCain. "We always agree when we're on the edge. Helluva way to do business."
That's typical on Capitol Hill when the days creep toward Christmas. That was the case last year on the "Bush tax cuts." The same was true when the Senate passed its original version of the health care bill on Christmas Eve day in 2009.
And so the Senate overwhelmingly embraced the payroll tax compromise 89-10 in a rare Saturday morning vote. McCain and a clear majority of Senate Republicans voted yea. Only seven Senate GOPers were opposed.
Almost no one liked that the payroll tax cut was temporary. They knew the sides would again brawl over the tax break in late February. Many Democrats abhorred the inclusion of the Keystone pipeline language in the bill. When many rank-and-file House Republicans opposed the payroll tax legislation, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) sweetened the deal by concocting the Keystone provision. Attaching Keystone to this measure enhanced the package for Senate Republicans, too.
"We are very pleased with the decision on the Keystone pipeline," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN).
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) clearly didn't like Keystone or the temporary nature of the payroll tax holiday. But Reid was pragmatic about what was negotiated.
"That's the best we could get," Reid said Friday night.
His top lieutenant, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said Democrats had to accept some concessions. But that's the legislative process.
"I think we have at least bought 60 days and live to fight another day," said Durbin. "The alternative was to see the payroll tax deal expire. I would not like to go back to my state or to another state if that had happened."
So the Senate approved the plan and dispatched it to the House. It's mandatory for the House and Senate to approve matching bills before it becomes law. And most thought this was on a glidepath.
But there was never formal clearance from House Republicans.
House members left Washington Friday afternoon with the idea they would return to synch up with the Senate.
"It is my understanding, therefore, that we do intend before we leave for the year to address the House passed bill or a Senate version thereof," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) queried Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) on the floor Friday.
"As I indicated earlier, it is all pending the Senate's action," Cantor responded. "No one really knows how quickly or slowly that will occur and if it will occur."
But few anticipated the firestorm that erupted Saturday afternoon. Having cut its members loose Friday, House Republicans convened a conference call to discuss the way forward on the payroll tax bill once the Senate finished up.
Sources on the call say that Boehner presented the GOP a range of options, including taking the Senate bill as a "victory" and living "to fight another day." Boehner pointed out that the House's Keystone provision was a major part of the Senate bill. But Boehner conceded that the Senate plan was simply another example of "kicking the can down the road." House Republicans were in no mood for that.
"There was overwhelming opposition (to the Senate deal)," said one House Republican on the call who didn't want to be identified.
Other Republicans were more direct.
"Never heard words like 'sucks' and 'crap' in a GOP conference," groused one lawmaker. "Almost all on the call sounded angry."
Two weeks ago, Boehner found himself unable to conjure enough votes to pass a payroll tax extension. But the votes materialized when the Ohio Republican supplemented the legislation with the Keystone pipeline.
During a Friday press conference, Boehner chose his words carefully when he described what he termed "rumors" about a two-month payroll tax extension.
"If that bill comes over to us, we will make changes to it. And I will guarantee you that the Keystone pipeline will be in there when it goes back to the United States Senate," Boehner said.
One interpretation of Boehner's language suggests that excluding the Keystone pipeline could be the only monkey wrench in this bill. After all many Senate Democrats and President Obama adamantly opposed the pipeline. But on closer inspection, Boehner suggested he was prepared for additional alterations.
"We will make changes to the bill and one of those changes will be the Keystone pipeline being in there," Boehner said when asked if the two-month tax break extension was sufficient.
House Republicans were spoiling for a fight with the Senate anyway. And the minimal extension triggered a mass revolt.
"We have not dug in our heels over squat this year," moaned one freshman Republican. "I worry about being primaried from the right. Here's the time we could dig in and not risk a government shutdown."
This comes right after the House voted Friday to keep the government operating through next fall. The bill easily passed, 296-121. But only 147 Republicans voted for it compared to 149 Democrats. In November, 101 Republicans bucked leadership and voted against another bill to keep the government running. Conservatives are apoplectic that the GOP majority hasn't made deeper spending cuts this year. Even though House Republicans made significant cuts, many view those reductions as insufficient.
It's conventional wisdom that GOP leaders struggled to enforce party discipline with Republican freshmen in 2010. However, that's not the case. The biggest pushback on those issues has emenated from senior conservatives.
But the payroll tax fight appears to be different. Freshmen with ties to the tea party are ginning up much of the opposition to the payroll tax extension. And nothing exercises these lawmakers more than a street brawl with the Senate.
"I think we should deal with the Senate the way I deal with my kids," said one House freshman. "Each time you complain, you'll get a worse deal."
This attitude was punctuated by statements from tea party loyalists like Rep. Allen West (R-FL). It didn't matter to West that McConnell negotiated the pact or that 89 senators voted yes. In a statement, West decried the deal as "nothing but typical liberal Democrat incrementalism."
Democrats exploited the conservative opposition in droves Sunday afternoon.
"We are witnessing a pattern of Speaker Boehner walking away from bipartisan compromises to kow-tow to his extreme tea party wing of his caucus," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) went a step further.
"This is a test of whether the House Republicans are fit to govern, and it is a make-or-break moment for John Boehner's speakership," said Schumer in a statement. "You cannot let a small group at the extreme resort to brinksmanship every time there is a major national issue."
Schumer is masterful at going for the political jugular. But his comments are particularly resonant about the discord among Republicans and what that means for Boehner. The speaker wasn't part of the Senate negotiations. But an aide indicated that Boehner's staff was "listening" to the talks. Moreover, Mitch McConnell indicated Friday night that "I keep the speaker informed as to what I'm doing."
A House GOP aide agreed.
"We are in constant communication, even though that doesn't mean our conferences are always going to agree on anything," said the aide.
However, the stark dissonance between Saturday's outcome in the Senate and the feisty conference call a few hours later reflects the challenge facing Boehner. All year long, Boehner's scrambled to find the votes to avert government shutdowns and increase the debt ceiling. If Boehner truly wanted to move the Senate legislation himself, it's likely he could do so with some Republican support and a chunk of Democrats. But even though Boehner's turned to Democrats for help passing major bills previously, he can't go there this time.
During his appearance on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday morning, Boehner took a stand. He called for the creation of a conference committee to blend the House and Senate payroll tax bills. Still, an aide to Harry Reid says there's no plan to appoint conferees. Moreover, the aide says the Senate doesn't plan to come back to entertain anything the House might approve.
Consider this: The House left Friday. The Senate left on Saturday. Now the House returns to Washington today. If the Senate does come back, this Congress will have more comebacks than Tim Tebow.
Forcing the Senate to return and accept the House's position would be a big win for Boehner. He'd have solidified his standing among conservatives who were wary of his leadership to start with and finished the year with a bang. That's why the House is scheduled to vote Monday night on the Senate bill. An internal GOP email obtained by FOX indicates the House is expected to reject the Senate package.
"We expect significant votes in the House on Tuesday," the email adds.
No one knows how long this will go on this week.
But after consultation with Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid appeared confident the Senate was wrapping Saturday morning.
"This will be the last roll call vote of the year," said Reid on the Senate floor."Happy holidays, everyone."
That may be the final Senate vote this year. But the year's final battle between the House and Senate is just starting.
"Merry Christmas," Boehner said as he left the Capitol last Thursday, stringing along a phalanx of reporters behind him.
"Merry Christmas," I replied. "Are we going home for Christmas?"
"I am," the speaker responded.
The holiday party which they throw every December on Capitol Hill has gone on way too long. And like most parties that run too late, it's starting to get messy.