The beautiful thing about Christmas is that different cultures and communities develop their own traditions to help celebrate the holiday.
For instance, residents of Bethlehem, PA decorate homes with miniature nativity scenes, often featuring hand-carved figures. Inhabitants of the Florida Keys may never enjoy a white Christmas. But they observe the holiday with festivals promoting local musicians and artists. Christians in Ethiopia wear shammas and wait to recognize the holiday in January since they follow the Julian calendar. In the Netherlands, “Sinterklaas” sails from Spain to Amsterdam, toting gifts for children.
And on Capitol Hill, members of Congress celebrate the Yuletide by locking themselves in some ferocious political conflict that threatens to wreck the holiday altogether. Aides book, re-book and re-re-book lawmakers’ flights and fret themselves about when they can escape. Journalists chase the Speaker of the House through the Capitol corridors peppering him or her with questions about the schedule and how talks are going with the White House. Many skip Christmas parties and Hanukkah celebrations because they’re here so late. And when they are able to attend a soiree, reporters step outside onto a back patio to do live reports or file stories from their BlackBerries.
Everyone is generally in a foul mood and short-tempered.
O, tidings of comfort and joy?
You’ve got to be kidding.
This is Christmas in Congress. Year after year after year.
In December, 2005, lawmakers toiled around the clock and through the weekend immediately before the holiday in an attempt to approve a measure to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling. It ultimately failed. In 2009, the Senate voted on Christmas Eve on health care reform. Christmas of 2010 brought efforts to pass an omnibus spending package which ultimately failed, a successful weapons treaty with Russia and a package to assist with the benefits for first responders on 9-11. Congress fought to the death last year over renewing a payroll tax break for workers. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) could never conjure up the support to approve the Senate’s version of the bill, even though it passed with 89 votes. So Boehner finally sent everyone home and got the House to okay the plan by unanimous consent just before Christmas. He was the only Republican in the chamber when the House finally passed the package.
This year’s exercise in reindeer games is over the dreaded fiscal cliff. That’s the toxic combination of big tax hikes and massive spending cuts, all scheduled to start in January. Boehner took a lot of heat for how he handled the payroll tax battle last year. And lawmakers remember. Many conservatives fear Boehner could cut an agreement with President Obama that they don’t like. But so far, Boehner’s not moving. That’s why “in there air there’s a feeling of Christmas” – Capitol Hill style.
“Due to ongoing negotiations on the fiscal cliff, a weekend session is possible,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), referring to December 22 & 23. “Members are advised to maintain flexibility in their travel schedules for the rest of the year.”
Earlier in the week, Cantor declared that “We are going to stay here right up to Christmas Eve, throughout the time and period before the New Year.”
And those on the Hill are told we had better watch out? We better not cry? Better not pout?
“It’s going to be a long December for us,” mused Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA).
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was nearly apoplectic as she tried to leverage a vote in the House to at least renew tax breaks for individuals making less than $200,000 and couples earning up to $250,000.
“That’s getting really stale. It’s getting really old. And the closer we get to Christmas, it’s really getting boring,” Pelosi said. “What are we waiting for? What other information? Is there a dove that is going to fly in with a message tied to his leg?”
Turtledoves, perhaps. Two of them.
It was pointed out to Pelosi that Democrats forced a series of Christmas Eve Senate votes to okay the first version of the Affordable Care Act three years ago.
“Well, I wasn’t here for the health care because that was a Senate measure, you will recall. We watched that from home,” Pelosi said.
“We didn’t,” I noted, standing up for my press corps brethren who all worked that day.
“Poor babies. Poor babies,” Pelosi replied with a wink.
So everyone waits. And waits. What’s interesting is that few lawmakers are in Washington this weekend. Even Boehner jetted home to Ohio.
“Ohio has both cellphone service and airports,” noted Boehner spokesman Mike Steel. “So if the president wants to talk or meet, it won’t be a problem.
Steel did not note, however. that the airport which serves Cincinnati, close to Boehner’s home, is located in Boone County, KY.
On Thursday, Fox’s Ed Henry asked White House spokesman Jay Carney “why doesn’t the president bring the speaker in here and get this thing done?”
Carney made a point that President Obama and Boehner had just met at the White House on Sunday and downplayed the importance of a tete-a-tete.
“Every time you guys seem to think that a physical meeting is the elixir to all our ills, I think it would behoove you to ask the Speaker if he believes that,” said Carney.
Just a few hours later, Mr. Obama summoned the Ohio Republican to the White House for a huddle in the Oval Office. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner joined. The conversation was described by both the Obama Administration and the Speaker’s Office as “frank.”
Boehner offered no comment when he returned to the Capitol Thursday night. But he did have a smile on his face and a little more skip in his step. He didn’t characterize the cadre of reporters as “like bloodhounds.” That was Boehner’s description of the press corps when they chased him across Statuary Hall Tuesday night when he left the House floor.
Reporters asked Pelosi mid-week how she handled vexing issues when she was Speaker of the House. Pelosi spoke of how she forced a very controversial vote on a bill to fund the Iraq war over the objections of many Democrats.
“It was very unpopular,” Pelosi said. “I’m not sure I ever recovered amongst some on the left for that.”
Pelosi said that she believes Boehner is a “person of good intention.” However, she had some advice for the Speaker of the House, having wielded the gavel before:
“Figure it out,” she said.
Figuring it out takes give on both sides. Political insiders believe that Boehner is likely to lose 80-100 Republicans on any final package, regardless of its structure. Pelosi could lose a similar number on her side. Any deal takes serious concessions.
On Thursday, a reporter asked Boehner a question about a series of contingencies regarding tax rates.
“Ifs, ands and buts are like candy and nuts. If that were the case, every day would be Christmas,” Boehner said. “I know, it’s going to be here really soon.”
“Christmas time is here. We’ll be drawing near….” sang the Peanuts’ gang alongside Vince Guaraldi’s piano in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Once again, Christmas time is here. And Congress is drawing toward yet another crisis.