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The Congress that stole Christmas – festive merriment dampened by ongoing fiscal cliff fight

 

The United States Congress could reprise its role as the Grinch who stole Christmas, as lawmakers continue to bicker toward an end-of-year fiscal cliff deadline that threatens to drag legislative drama through the holidays.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told fellow Republicans on Wednesday to not make any serious plans around or after Christmas, implying that work on resolving the fiscal cliff would extend well through the holiday.

"We can do things very quickly, but this is not something we can do very easily, at least as far as bill-drafting goes," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters on Tuesday. "I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to get it done before Christmas, but it could be done."

Yet these politicians are engaging in just the latest version of a yuletide game of beat-the-clock in Washington. 

Christmas trees, menorahs and other festive adornments have been placed at the White House and Capitol, but a glum sentiment has overtaken Washington. And it’s all thanks to the emerging annual tradition of late-December partisan standoffs as the president and Congress race to complete unfinished business.

Win Mcnamee / Getty Images

Capitol Hill police check an unidentified man dressed as Santa Claus with a metal detector as he enters the U.S. Capitol on his way to Speaker of the House John Boehner's office on December 12, 2012 in Washington, DC.

And while that’s meant long hours for lawmakers, Hill staffers and reporters, it’s also resulted in a tremendous amount of uncertainty for many Americans. The last few holiday seasons found some shoppers hitting the stores with scarcely any idea of how much their paychecks would be taxed in the new year. And in 2009, the fate of President Barack Obama’s closely-watched health care overhaul rested on the outcome of an early-morning vote on Christmas Eve.

This year is no different. Congress has known since the summer of 2011 that the fiscal cliff – the automatic expiration of the 2001 Bush tax cuts, and the automatic spending cuts set forth by the 2011 debt ceiling deal – would spring into place at the end of December unless acted upon.

Indeed, the automatic spending cuts, which fall heavily upon the defense budget, were designed to be so distasteful as to give Republicans and Democrats time and an incentive to act well before the end-of-year deadline to reach a deal.

 

With Christmas less than two weeks away, the White House is faced with the same key question – Can House Speaker John Boehner deliver enough Republican votes for whatever debt deal he and President Barack Obama agree on. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

 

Even if Republicans and Obama were able to reach an agreement today, it would take at least a few days to translate that agreement into legislative language. And once that’s drafted, House rules require that the legislation be posted online (for review) 72 hours before a vote. In short, time is running out to reach a deal before the end of the year, let alone Christmas.

The historical idea of a “lame-duck” Congress – a snooze-worthy session in which defeated or retiring lawmakers do little of substance – seems almost antiquated, given the frenzied and substantial work left for legislators during recent holiday seasons.

It almost seems as though lawmakers accomplish more during December than they do during the rest of the year.

Last year, it was the threat of a hike in the payroll tax rate that extended late into the holiday season. Obama and Republicans wrangled over whether a yearlong, 2 percent payroll tax cut – which they authorized in the waning days of 2010 – should be extended for another year.

Archival video: The standoff between the House and Senate ended quietly on Dec. 22, 2011, with the payroll tax cut being extended for another two months. NBC's Mike Viqueira, Mark Murray and MSNBC's Mark Halperin discuss.

At the time, Republicans argued that the cost of the payroll tax cuts should be offset with other spending cuts, a position which Obama said was unusual, given the other tax cuts Republicans had previously proposed without a similar offset. The GOP ultimately relented, passing an extension of the payroll tax (only for two months) on Dec. 22.

Of course, that standoff was the byproduct of the previous December’s showdown, which also played a role in setting up the current fiscal cliff currently beguiling lawmakers.

That December featured a negotiation between Obama and Republicans – who had just delivered a “shellacking” to Democrats, in the president’s words, and retaken control of the House – over the fate of the 2001 Bush tax cuts.

Archival video: President Obama signed into law on Dec. 17, 2010, a deal to extend Bush-era tax cuts as well as unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans. NBC's Savannah Guthrie reports.

Republicans reached a deal with Obama at a relatively early point, on Dec. 6, on a package that preserved existing tax rates for an additional two years past the end of the 2010, when the tax cuts first sought by President George W. Bush were scheduled to expire. In exchange, Obama won an extension in unemployment benefits, which were also set to expire. The president signed the bill on Dec. 17.

It would be easy to look at the record and assign blame for the discord during these past three Decembers to the differences between the Republican-held House and a Democratic White House. But it was the preceding December (in 2009), when Democrats enjoyed strong majorities in both chambers, that saw one of the most high-wire votes in Congress.

The Senate convened on Christmas Eve morning that year to hold a historic, party-line vote on approving the upper chamber’s version of Obama’s health care reform law. Members of the Senate gathered at 7:05 a.m. – giving them enough time to travel home to rejoin their families for Christmas – to vote 60 to 39 to give final approval to the bill that would ultimately serve as the basis for “Obamacare.”

The vote ended months of partisan strife and wrangling over the fate of health care reform, and was designed to advance the legislation to the House before Massachusetts could elect a senator to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose seat was held by a placeholder, Democratic Sen. Paul Kirk.

Archival video: Speaking shortly after Senate Democrats passed an historic health care bill on Dec. 24, 2009, President Obama called health care reform the most important piece of social legislation since Social Security passed in the 1930s.

The real drama took place, though, in the weeks preceding that vote. Democrats worked around-the-clock to secure the 60 votes they needed to pass the health care law, and Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson didn’t agree to become the 60th decisive vote until Saturday, Dec. 20.

His support prompted a series of procedural votes to move the health care legislation toward a final vote at 1:05 a.m. on  Dec. 21. But even that vote was almost imperiled by a major blizzard that blanketed Washington and crippled transportation throughout the city, forcing senators to camp out at the Capitol.

Those dark-of-night votes could become another staple of this year’s scramble to reach a deal to resolve the fiscal cliff, the countdown to which will mimic the revelers in Times Square on New Year’s Eve unless Congress and Obama can soon reach an accord.