Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) knew he was in a pickle.
The Arkansas Congressman found himself presiding over the House of Representatives as the minute-hand crept toward midnight on January 1. The House had just approved a bill to sidestep the fiscal cliff. And then word spread through the chamber that the House Republican leadership had scrapped plans to debate a $60.4 emergency spending bill to help victims of hurricane Sandy in the waning hours of the 112th Congress.
A cavalcade of lawmakers from both parties - many from districts in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - flooded the well of the House chamber to condemn the decision.
"It is with a heavy heart in disbelief that I'm ashamed to take this floor," said Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY), taking the rare step of speaking from the Democratic lectern. "I'm not proud of the decision my team has made."
"I should remind the people that we have a switchboard down here," thundered Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY).
"We cannot leave here," pleaded House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). "Doing nothing - that would be a disgrace."
The blistering speeches raged. And then outgoing Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA), defeated by Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) in November, interrupted the Sandy procession to give brief farewell remarks to the body in which he would only serve for another 30 hours.
Bilbray concluded and Womack, towering over the floor from the dais, asked the California Republican if he had a motion.
"I move the House to now adjourn," intoned Bilbray as the clock inched toward the witching hour.
As is customary, Womack asked those in favor to shout "yea" and those opposed to holler "nay."
The ad-hoc, bipartisan squadron of lawmakers populating the House floor to protest the decision to pull the Sandy measure were in no mood to let the House slip out of session into the night. There were a smattering of audible "ayes" in response to Womack's request. And then came the "noes." A clamorous, ear-splitting chorus of vehement "noes."
And that's why Steve Womack found himself in such a jam.
As the presiding officer wielding the gavel over the House at that moment, Womack's supposed to be fair and impartial. He's to rule with discretion, control the flow of debate and execute parliamentary decisions. And when a routine, bland question arises as to whether the House should adjourn for the day, there's usually little controversy. This decision is rote. Mechanical. And the "ayes" almost always have it.
But Womack was officiating with a near-insurrection unfolding in front of him. And he clearly knew that the noes were resoundingly louder than the yeas, thus voting to keep the House in session.
Womack paused for a moment and gripped the rostrum. He inhaled deeply and grimaced, turning his head to the right as he pondered what he should do. The noes had clearly prevailed - at least audibly. Yet the House was supposed to adjourn. So Womack weighed this decision in silence for what seemed like an eternity, holding those occupying the House floor in rapt attention.
On Capitol Hill, there's a common term of art deployed by the presiding officer when the House takes such "voice votes." After all, without appropriate decibel measuring equipment, it would be impossible to correctly determine which side prevailed on a voice vote - thus definitively settling whether the ayes or the nays "have it." So the House leaves this cardinal judgment to the presiding officer. It is up to he or she to discern which side is loudest and thus pronounce a ruling.
The term of art every presiding officer utters at this point is always the same: "In the opinion of the chair, the ayes/nays have it."
It's like a baseball umpire deciding a strike or a ball. A basketball referee deducing if it's a block or a charge. And like their brethren on the diamond or hardwood, it is the providence of the presiding officer to make a judgment call.
It was a judgment call Steve Womack obviously struggled with for a few moments.
And then Womack pronounced his decree.
"In the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it," proclaimed Womack. He then hastily rapped the gavel, terminating the House session.
Womack may have halted the protests on the House floor for the night about torpedoing the Sandy bill. But this virtually launched what would then be 15 hours of the most feisty, political invective seen in years. This contretemps stretched from Capitol Hill to the Jersey shore, out to the Rockaways, east to Long Island, and it rattled around the governor's mansions in Albany and Trenton.
It was just after midnight on January 2 when House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) barged into the press gallery, a parade of lawmakers from New Jersey and New York in tow, prepared to make sure the scribes were aware of what had just unfolded.
"The contemptuous manner in which he (House Speaker John Boehner, R-OH) pulled the bill is unbelievable," protested Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY).
"Here's where there's been a betrayal of trust," piled on Rep. Pete King (R-NY).
"We had the votes," asserted Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY).
That was nothing.
The New York and New Jersey Congressional delegations picked right back up the next morning on the House floor.
King ripped his own party to shreds, calling into question whether he could still support the leadership.
"As we say in Jersey, it's time calmly, coolly, to take the gloves off," threatened Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ).
And then came word from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) had scheduled a press conference.
A collective shiver vibrated up the spine of the body politic - far beyond the casinos of Atlantic city and the toll plazas of the Garden State Parkway.
"This just got real," said a House Democratic aide who asked not to be identified.
Christie then unleashed a scathing attack on Congress and his own party.
"It's extraordinarily frustrating to me that we have people down there (in Washington) treating people like pawns on a chess board," Christie said. "That's why people hate Washington, DC. Last night, my party was responsible for this."
Christie said that he had assurances as late as 9 pm the night before that the House would consider the Sandy bill. When word came the bill was out, Christie said he tried to phone Boehner four times without success. However, he noted the two did speak the next morning.
Later that day, Boehner and others etched out a plan to punt the Sandy spending bill into the new Congress and split it up.
Word came the House would vote on January 4, the second day of the new Congress, on a $9.7 billion package to help expedite relief to those who experienced flooding after the storm. Later, the House would consider a $16 billion measure to meet critical, immediate needs after the storm. Attached to the plan would be a $33 billion amendment offered by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ). If approved, this money would go toward long-term reconstruction in New York, New Jersey and other areas affected by Sandy.
And so after a week-long hiatus, the House is scheduled to entertain amendments to the new Sandy effort at a Rules Committee meeting late Monday afternoon and put the new legislation on the floor later this week.
But it's anybody's guess if they'll tone down the vitriol this time around.
The original $60.4 billion plan breezed to passage with a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate a few weeks ago. But there was always concern in the House. Many Republicans thought the package was too big - even though both Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) requested much more. Many Republicans demanded offsets. The most-vexing issue involving the fiscal cliff - and the pending set of cliffs - is spending. This bill automatically dumps the U.S. $60 billion in the hole again. So many conservatives are demanding offsets. In other words, they might be for the bill - if they can finding matching cuts somewhere else in the federal budget.
A variety of House members have filed dozens of amendments with the House Rules Committee in an effort to alter the measure. A spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee says they've already stripped the legislation of "pork" that could be found in the original Senate package. That includes non-Sandy related funding such as money for fisheries in Alaska or efforts to help with wildfires in Colorado.
One of the most significant amendments comes from Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC). To offset some of the Sandy legislation, Mulvaney proposes an across-the-board, 1.63 percent spending reduction for all discretionary federal spending. Another idea of Mulvaney's is to eliminate direct payments to farmers and prohibit freeing up money for future obligations from the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP).
So expect fireworks as the new Sandy bill moves to the House floor. And some of the biggest sparks could be between Republicans.
The House finally passed the fiscal cliff bill on New Year's Eve night 257-167. Even though Republicans control the House, 85 Republicans voted yes compared to 151 who cast no ballots.
The next day the House approved the $9.7 billion flood insurance plan - which was part of the Senate's original Sandy package. The House adopted that measure overwhelmingly 354-67. But 193 Democrats voted yes compared to 161 Republicans. All 67 no votes came from the GOP side of the aisle.
The rhetorical venom may have calmed down for a few days since the House last wrestled with this issue. But one of the reasons the GOP halted the original bill was because of internal Republican squabbles over spending. The fiscal cliff measure didn't help that as it did little to directly impact spending. Conservatives are still fighting mad. Some hold open disdain toward the House leadership.
Republicans are looking for offsets. When all is said and done, the Sandy bills will cost at least $60 billion. That's why this legislation is the target of such toxic political virulence.
And it's anybody's guess if this round will be as contentious as the last one.