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In Congress, another round of year-end gamesmanship

Lawmakers in both chambers use deadline pressure to maneuver massive, must-pass bills through.

December 13, 2011|By Kathleen Hennessey and Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has threatened to keep Congress in session until a consensus is achieved on year-end bills.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has threatened to keep Congress… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington —  

Republicans in the House who campaigned on promises to clean up the legislative sausage-making on Capitol Hill are hustling through the year's final to-do list in much the same way lawmakers always have — by making sausage.

With a year-end recess approaching, lawmakers in both chambers are stuffing choice bits into massive, must-pass bills, using the pressure of a deadline to ease the way.

The gamesmanship was on full display Tuesday as the House — with 224 Republicans and 10 Democrats voting yes — approved a bill to extend a temporary reduction to the Social Security payroll tax, a top priority for both parties with the tax break set to expire at the end of the year. The victory was largely political, as Democrats oppose elements added to the bill, notably a measure that would force President Obama to decide whether to allow the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The White House has threatened a veto.

In the Senate, Democrats sought leverage by holding up progress on a separate massive spending bill that would avert a government shutdown looming Friday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, along with the White House, wants to negotiate the payroll tax bill along with the spending measure, and threatened to keep Congress in session until lawmakers achieve a consensus on both.

The last-minute horse-trading and maneuvering are hardly new to Capitol Hill. But those tactics were prime targets for frustrated Republicans in the last Congress controlled by Democrats. Amid GOP complaints about bills being bloated with unrelated provisions and passed quickly without scrutiny, House Republicans promised they would improve transparency and "reform Congress itself," in the words of then-Minority Leader John A. Boehner.

"We will end the practice of packaging unpopular bills with 'must-pass' legislation to circumvent the will of the American people. Instead, we will advance major legislation one issue at a time," House Republicans declared in their "Pledge to America" shortly before winning control of the chamber.

The challenge of living up to the spirit of those reforms has run into the realities of politics.

After Republicans had pledged to resist huge spending bills and instead approve them individually, House leaders are prepared to move a massive, nine-bill mash-up of appropriations legislation. The bill is expected to stretch to hundreds of pages, carry a price tag of more than $1 trillion and be peppered with policy provisions. It would fund the government through September — giving agencies certainty and ending the short-term measures that have kept them running from one shutdown threat to the next.

Democrats charged that the tax cut bill the House passed Tuesday also ran afoul of the GOP pledge.

Along with the payroll tax cut and the pipeline provision, the bill would extend benefits for the long-term unemployed but give states the right to drug-test recipients. It also would roll back air-emission standards on industrial boilers that emit mercury and other toxins.

The result was "complicated, expensive and unfair, jammed together in must-pass legislation," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.).

Republicans disputed the Democrats' complaint.

"HR 3630 does not fit the definition of 'must-pass' legislation — which generally refers to funding bills, or an increase in the debt limit — nor does it contain any 'unpopular' provisions," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. "Therefore, it is entirely consistent with the Pledge to America."

As for the funding bill, Republicans blamed Democrats in the Senate for its size and scope.

"I don't like the size of the bill either, but we had no choice," said House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.).

"This was the only vehicle open to us to the keep the government going," he added.

The common thread through the payroll tax and spending bills is the tough politics on both. Many Republicans have grown weary of fights over funding the government. They've also come to accept that opposing an extension to the payroll tax cut — which puts an average of $1,000 more in workers' paychecks next year — comes with political blow back.

"We're going to do what we were sent here to do," said Republican Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri. "Everyone is not happy with stuff. You always have to compromise."

For now, however, Reid has refused to sign off on the spending bill. He wants to prevent the House from voting on it and leaving town without a deal on the payroll tax cut.

President Obama has backed the hardball strategy. According to a senior administration official, who discussed private talks on condition of anonymity, Obama told Reid in a phone call Sunday that "nothing gets done until everything gets done."

If the House needs more time to negotiate and cannot make the Friday deadline, Reid and Obama agreed, lawmakers can pass yet another short-term spending measure.

Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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