The Speaker’s Lobby: Happy Holidays

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
23 November 2012

Everyone said wait until after the election to solve the fiscal cliff.

Well, the election is long gone. President Obama is preparing to pardon turkeys down at the White House for Thanksgiving. And policymakers in Washington may well have already burned three weeks off the calendar without even creeping toward resolving the cataclysmic tax, spending and debt issues which are looming at the end of the year.

Week 1: Election night was Tuesday, November 6. Sure, it takes some time for everyone to digest what happened. But there were no big policy huddles – even late in the week after the results sunk in.

Week 2: Lawmakers return to Washington for the first time since the election. Due to travel, the president wasn’t around much until late in the week. Mr. Obama finally presides over a conclave at the White House on Friday with the “Big Four”: House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Week 3: Lawmakers are absent from Washington. The president is overseas. And it’s Thanksgiving.

Three weeks. And no concrete debate to avert a year-end calamity.

Washington is racing toward the fiscal cliff at the end of the year. Tax rates could explode. The government is on the precipice of deep, arbitrary spending cuts which could costs thousands of private and public jobs. Some economists estimate this could sink the economy back into a recession. The government is again approaching a battle over the debt ceiling and a tussle over its credit worthiness.

The lead story in Washington? Paula Broadwell’s arms, the curious judgment of former CIA Director David Petraeus and the tax records of Tampa socialite Jill Kelley.

Did you know that the “Gang of 38” met late last week on the House side of the Capitol to discuss ways to avoid the fiscal cliff?

For starters, did you even know there was Gang of 38? It’s bipartisan group of House members who are seeking a solution to the crisis. It’s patterned after the Senate and its various “gangs” of six, eight, 14 or whatever number is fashionable to sidestep the emergency of the moment.

Now to be clear, things are percolating behind the scenes. But just how far along they’re getting to negotiating a solution is anybody’s guess.

A senior House aide indicated Friday that staff would “immediately” begin discussions on a “framework” that the principals could look at sometime after Thanksgiving. But late Friday, a senior Congressional aide who would be privy to those talks conceded marching orders had yet to arrive. By Monday morning, it was much of the same. There was word of telephone calls and email exchanges. Some in-person sessions with senior staff. But nothing significant. Nothing specific as to whether the sides were tackling the tax/revenue piece of the puzzle or spending cuts or timetables or what. All that was said is that they hoped to invite the top Congressional leaders back to the White House for another meeting sometime after Thanksgiving.

One aide cautioned that the meeting probably wouldn’t even be early in the week.

So everyone is left to speculate – understanding the broad parameters under which an agreement maybe acceptable.

Boehner is reiterating his position that he’s open to new “revenue,” not new taxes.

“There are ways to put revenue on the table without a tax increase,” Boehner said. “But specifics at this point would not be conducive.”

Pelosi restated the traditional Democratic stance that top wage earners – couples making up to $250,000 and individuals bringing home $200,000 – pay more to help drive down the debt.

“I think that’s where a good deal of leverage is in these negotiations,” Pelosi said. “But again, as I have said before, I’m fairly agnostic about certain things.”

The point being, Pelosi’s not agnostic about higher-income wage earners catching a break.

And then there’s the sequester.

In August of 2011, Congress and Mr. Obama agreed to take a meat cleaver to federal spending. In exchange for hiking the debt limit, the sides approved a plan to impose a massive, mandatory, across-the-board spending cut that would start in January, 2013 – unless a 12-member “supercommittee” forged a deal instead. Whatever the supercommittee concocted would not be capricious and would instead be targeted. Yet the supercommittee failed. That means the government now faces “sequestration,” a walling off of federal funds to the tune of around eight percent for most agencies. And the Pentagon gets hit even harder.

“You say ‘sequestration’ to somebody back at home and they look at your like you’re on Mars,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT).

Larson spoke of this after emerging from a closed-door Democratic Caucus session where lawmakers discussed the fiscal cliff and potential options.

Just moments before, Rep.-elect Joe Garcia (D-FL) left the room early and a fellow, freshman colleague asked him what thought.

“Boring as hell,” Garcia was overheard to say as he walked past a row of reporters.

Perhaps it’s no wonder everyone would rather marvel at Paula Broadwell’s guns.

“Yes, this stuff can be very tedious,” said Larson when asked about Garcia’s quip. “You have new freshman members and we’re all talking about the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax). And a guy goes ‘What?’ You know and they know they can’t possibility absorb all of this at once.”

It might be hard to absorb. But in order to cut a deal before the end of the year, time is starting to slip away. How many times do we hear on Capitol Hill that lawmakers need time” to consider a proposal. Time to mull their vote and decide if it’s best for their district. Offer up soundbytes that they shouldn’t make any hasty decisions.

Christmas is usually the deadline for thwarting major Congressional crises. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet. So what’s the hurry?

“I said we should do this before Christmas,” said Pelosi. “Well before Christmas so that we’re not up to the end of the line.”

“We all know something has to be done. We’ll do it now,” said Reid. “This is not something we’ll wait until the last day of December to get done.”


Of course, lawmakers would rather wrap this up quickly. But that’s not how things usually play out in Washington around the holidays. In fact, it’s become an annual ritual. The days grow short and Congress sprints through December. Lawmakers hold Christmas Eve votes on health care reform. They scrap over a major arms treaty with Russia. There’s a rhubarb over a health bill for emergency workers who were first on the scene after 9-11. There are donnybrooks over renewing a payroll tax cut for workers. They fight when it comes to rescuing the nation’s auto industry.

This is just the way things usually work around the holidays on Capitol Hill. The goal is always resolve these agreements long before Christmas. But that rarely happens. Congress is usually in session right until the very end. Which usually makes for a very dour holiday season in Washington.

Why does it take all month? Because Christmas is always the deadline. It’s the time when the final legislative train pulls out of the station. The parliamentary conductor stands in the door of passenger car, waves his signal lantern and shouts “All aboard!”

Load your provision onto that final bill or be left standing on the platform.

These pacts just don’t fall out of thin air. They have to be massaged. Negotiated. Re-negotiated. And then at the end, lawmakers scrape to find the votes to pass them. And it always helps to have a deadline. And once again, even though no one wants to admit it, the deadline is Christmas.

“We all understand where we are,” said Mitch McConnell.

And where we are is again staring at Christmas. Because if history is the guide, Christmas is the only time lawmakers can find the votes to pass whatever the issue du jour is and finally escape town.

Happy holidays.

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