Feb. 14, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Congress Left for Recess on Temporary Miracle

The pre-Christmas crush of business in Congress at the end of a session is often hurried, harried and harrowing. This time was different. Both chambers completed action on one of the year’s most important bills Dec. 23 with most Members not even in town.

It was two days before Christmas, and all through the Congress not a creature was stirring except for some hapless clerks and a handful of Members designated to mimic the motions of lawmaking. Everyone else was already back home, snug in their beds, while mystified citizens were left scratching their heads: Just how did this immaculate conception of a public law come about?

The two main items left to be completed before the holidays were appropriations to keep the government running and several expiring items: the “payroll tax holiday,” unemployment compensation, the “doc fix” for Medicare payments and mortgage relief on fees and premiums.

While there was always the possibility of a government shutdown if Congress couldn’t agree on final spending levels, House and Senate appropriators avoided that prospect by negotiating two bipartisan packages: first, a “minibus” bill that bundled three of the 12 regular bills into one; then a “maxi-bus” combining the nine remaining bills. Although most assumed that was a clincher, a last-minute hitch arose when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) threatened to hold up action on the maxi-bus until Congress cleared the taxpayer relief measure.

That ploy backfired when some prominent Democrats complained they didn’t want to be blamed for holding the government hostage. So the maxi-bus was allowed to proceed to enactment with the understanding that Congress would then act on the tax relief and unemployment compensation bill.

On Dec. 12, the House had passed a full-year extension of the expiring measures together with a provision directing the president to approve within 60 days the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas unless he determines it is not in the national interest — a decision otherwise put off until after the election, pending environmental studies.

The bill had not been reported by any of the 12 committees of referral, and no floor amendments were allowed. Once passed, it met with stiff resistance from the Senate and the president over some of the “pay-fors” (to offset the costs of the bill) and the pipeline provisions.

What freed the appropriations bill for enactment was a bipartisan deal worked out between Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to provide for a two-month extension of the expiring tax and unemployment provisions (they couldn’t agree on sufficient pay-fors to cover the full year), along with the 60-day deadline for the pipeline decision.

Speaker John Boehner could not sell the Senate compromise to a Republican caucus that was steaming and screaming like a tea kettle at full boil. So the Ohio Republican informed his Senate counterparts and the president that the House majority was holding fast for a full-year extension.

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