The always-fractious relationship between House and Senate Democrats hit a dramatic low last week that resulted in Members leaving for the Memorial Day recess having failed to extend unemployment benefits or avert a pay cut for doctors under Medicare.
And while publicly, House and Senate leaders refused to assign blame, the behind-the-scenes story was far different.
The deadline for the benefits package had been looming for weeks. But all the advance warning was for naught as the lack of trust between the two chambers escalated and an anti-deficit-spending sentiment among rank-and-file moderates grew. House leaders were forced to strike about $80 billion from their bill, including COBRA health benefits for the unemployed and Medicaid assistance to states. But the bill only came together Thursday evening, and Senate leaders decided they had waited around long enough and headed for the exits.
House aides ripped the Senate for failing to look for votes for the original bill Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) had negotiated with Ways and Means Chairman Sander Levin (D-Mich.), while Senate aides said they couldn't whip a package until Senators knew it could pass the House, which appeared dicier by the day.
And it didn't help that various moderate Democratic Senators kept dumping on the bill.
The situation came to a head Wednesday, when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) confronted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to ask him what he could clear through the Senate. House aides said Reid suggested shrinking the length of the "doc fix" for Medicare payments to make the bill cheaper. But the Nevada Democrat still couldn't guarantee it would pass.
"The House wanted a guarantee of a specific outcome," one senior Senate Democratic aide said. "No Majority Leader in good faith could make that promise."
House Democratic aides shot back that there was no reason why they couldn't have been working the original Baucus-Levin bill, which they had been led to believe by the Senate could pass.
But Senate aides dismissed House complaints, accusing House leaders of floating three versions of the bill in the space of nine days.
"Which proposal were we supposed to whip?" the aide asked. "You don't get a Senator to commit to support a piece of legislation unless you have the details."
Another senior Democratic Senate source said House leaders further angered Reid by waiting until Wednesday to determine what the House could advance.
When Hoyer and Reid met that morning, the aide said, it was "clear that the House was having trouble getting their act together."
That was a problem for Reid because Senate Republicans had already let it be known that they were planning to draw out — and possibly filibuster — the bill.
[IMGCAP(1)]"Senate Republicans were not going to let us pass it today, next week or maybe ever," the second senior aide said. "That's what House Democrats failed to understand."
Indeed, House Democratic moderates were already in full revolt by Wednesday, warning Hoyer that they would not vote for the package. On Thursday, they said they wouldn't vote for the revised package either, forcing even deeper cuts to the package.
Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a co-chairwoman of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, who led the push-back against the larger package, said there was a larger concern bubbling up from Members who were hearing growing concerns about the deficit back home.
"Our constituents aren't buying that we can't pay for things," the South Dakota Democrat said.
Freshman Rep. Gerry Connolly came out early against the larger package and said the cuts to the bill should tell leadership it is time to slow down.
"Look what just happened to this bill," the Virginia Democrat said. "They had to strip it back and strip it back and strip it back, and then bifurcate the votes, and still they are getting a bare majority."
Connolly said the bulk of the concern is with the size deficit, but Members also are very frustrated with the Senate.
"When the word spread last night they had already adjourned, people were astounded, stunned," he said.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would not have had Members looking for assurances from the Senate if she had not pressed her Members to take difficult votes on bills that would later die in the Senate, such as last year's climate change measure.
"What the House wants more than anything right now is cover from the Senate," the senior Senate Democratic aide said. "This has as much to do with climate change and health care as it does with tax extenders."
Another Senate Democratic aide posited that the tensions boiled over last week because of the difficult political terrain Members in both parties are facing.
"Every incumbent in both parties is running scared," the aide said.
Reid said Friday that he does not believe either chamber is to blame, noting that he understands House frustrations over the Senate's inability to pass much of the legislation that has been sent over. Reid also alluded to the fact that both chambers had trouble securing enough votes for passage.
"This is not an easy piece of legislation," Reid told reporters. "There's no fault to cast around here. This is just very, very hard to do."
Pelosi, touting the slimmed-down package that passed the House on Friday, also declined to point fingers, noting the difficulties of the legislative process. She mentioned her inability to get a public insurance option on the health care bill as an example.
But Pelosi said the lift on the unemployment benefits extension bill was no harder than that on other measures, and she contended that the money stripped from the bill will ultimately be passed into law anyway.
"I believe that everything that we had in the bill will be done, not all of it in this bill," she said. She vowed the unemployed and others will be made whole despite missing the June 1 deadline.
"No one will be deprived of anything," she said.