As the stalemate over the payroll tax cut extension drags on, House Republicans and Democrats both staged their own photo opportunities today to underline each party's failure to finish the people's work before lawmakers left town for the holidays.
In dueling displays of discontent, House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., held a news conference with their eight GOP appointees chosen to negotiate a final deal. At the same time, Democrats made a show of force on the House floor as they attempted a maneuver to pass the Senate's two-month extension.
"The House voted to reject the Senate bill and asked for a conference with the Senate where we could resolve the differences between the two Houses," Boehner said, with Cantor and Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina at his side. "I've appointed the eight men and women sitting here with the majority leader and I to be our negotiators. We're here and we're ready to go to work, and we're hoping that Senate Democrats will appoint negotiators, come to the table and resolve these differences."
A row of chairs for Democratic negotiators sat empty across the long conference table, but across the Capitol, two senior Democrats protested the House's opposition to a temporary extension.
Pro forma sessions are generally routine in the House of Representatives. Typically, a small procession walks onto the House floor, a designee from the sergeant at arms office carries the ceremonial mace of the House of Representatives into the chamber, the House chaplain reads a prayer, a member recites the Pledge of Allegiance, and any procedural business is usually quickly settled in a matter of minutes.
But today, as Pennsylvania GOP freshman Michael Fitzpatrick, who served as presiding officer, tried to slam the gavel and end this morning's pro forma session, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., attempted to continue the day's proceedings by bringing up the Senate's passing the two-month extension of the payroll tax credit and unemployment benefits.
"Mr. Speaker!" Hoyer shouted. "Mr. Speaker, we'd like to ask for unanimous consent that we bring up the bill to extend the tax cut for 160 million Americans as you walk off the floor Mr. Speaker."
As the procession left the rostrum and Fitzpatrick left the chamber, Hoyer voiced his objections.
"You're walking out!" he complained. "You're walking away just as so many Republicans have walked away from middle- class taxpayers, the unemployed, and very frankly as well from those who will be seeking medical assistance from their doctors, 48 million senior citizens."
"We regret, Mr. Speaker, that you have walked off the platform without addressing the issue of critical important to this country and that is the continuation of the middle-class tax cut, the continuation of unemployment benefits for those at risk of losing them, and the continuation of the access to doctors for all those 48 million seniors who rely on them daily for their health," he concluded. "I am pleased to yield to my friend, Mr. Van Hollen."
But as Van Hollen, who had led the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, was heard off-mic thanking Hoyer for yielding, the House gallery studio cameras went dark and the microphones were cut off, silencing the House Democrat. Hoyer and Van Hollen continued anyways and exchanged banter on the floor for 23 more minutes. Since all of this happened after the House adjourned, none of it will even appear in the official Congressional record.
"You have an extreme right-wing element in the House of Representatives that has hijacked the process," Van Hollen said afterward. "That is why they refused to even bring up the bipartisan Senate bill for an up-or-down vote, because they were afraid they would get the same bipartisan result in the House as they got in the Senate. They are afraid of bipartisanship. And the reason is because they have this very right-wing element."
Cantor said that Republicans had stayed at the Capitol "because we want to make sure that the middle-class and working families of this country have some certainty that their taxes will not go up for the entirety of next year."
"People are sitting there across America scratching their heads, wondering what Washington is doing and by the very fact that the president sits probably only a mile away from here down Pennsylvania Avenue," Cantor said. "We're sitting here. People are wondering why [Republicans and Democrats] just can't get together and talk and work this out. And that's exactly what we're asking them to do. The differences between us are not very great."
Asked about some Senate Republicans slamming the House GOP's decision not to go along with the two-month temporary extension, Boehner said that Congress should follow regular order and cut a deal at a bicameral conference negotiation.
"We have two chambers of the Congress. We have the House and the Senate," Boehner said. "The House produced a bill, exactly what the president asked for. The Senate only produced a two-month bill. The process is to sit down and resolve those differences and we're here ready to go to work."
Reacting to a Wall Street Journal editorial that criticized the speaker's leadership, Boehner maintained that the Republican Party is "the party of lower taxes for the American people."
"We have fought for lower taxes for the 21 years that I've been in this Congress, and we're going to continue to be the party of lower taxes," Boehner said. "We can resolve these differences between the two parties, and give the American people a real Christmas present."
"The time to do our work is now," he concluded. "Time is running short, but we have ample time to get this done."