Congress settled in for an old-fashioned staring contest today with House Republicans on one side and the White House and the entire Senate on the other over extending a popular payroll tax cut set to expire Jan. 1.
The standoff marks an ostensibly ugly end to an ugly year of bitter partisan fighting, gridlock and general acrimony in Washington, D.C., that has sent Congress’ approval ratings tumbling to record lows with no end in sight.
The Senate already adjourned for the year after passing a two-month extension to provide more negotiating time, but House Republicans rejected that bill today and sought to force a conference committee to forge a full one-year deal — before sending the bulk of their Members home for the Christmas holiday.
With the Democrats so far refusing to appoint conferees and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) essentially missing in action since the Senate closed up shop Saturday, Speaker John Boehner’s decision to appoint his committee members was, at least for now, little more than a symbolic gesture designed to pressure Democrats.
One of the Ohio Republican’s picks, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), said the negotiators’ game plan is unclear at this point, except that the group will stick around Capitol Hill to put heat on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The group had plans to meet this evening.
“I’m certainly planning to stay, or at least certainly not leaving today,” Brady said. “We’re going to continue to call on Senator Reid ... to come to the table with us.”
House Democrats, however, have followed Reid’s lead and dug in, not just refusing to appoint conferees but also calling the House Republicans-only conference committee a sham and promising to keep doing so until the House passes the Senate-passed bill.
“They’re obviously using this as a ploy to prevent the payroll tax cut extension,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said. “It rings a little hollow to say they’re opposing a two-months’ extension and they want a full year when they were opposed to a full-year extension just a couple of months ago.”
Boehner’s negotiators include two committee chairmen: Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), both of whom were recently on the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters in the Capitol after a speech on the Senate floor that accused the CIA of searching computers set up for Congressional staff for their research of interrogation programs.