The House of Representatives returns to legislative business today, kicking off what is primed to be a frantic month as a number of legislative deadlines press up against Congress.
The month of January was not a very productive one in Congress. The most significant piece of legislation the House passed was a resolution of disapproval on the president's request to increase the country's statutory debt limit. The Senate rejected the resolution, but even if it had passed, the president was expected to veto it.
One week of legislative business was cut short so House Speaker John Boehner could lead Republicans to Baltimore for the annual issues conference, this year called Congress of Tomorrow. The next week another day was curtailed so President Obama could deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. The next morning, last Wednesday, was spent mostly paying tribute to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Later that afternoon, Democrats bolted Washington to huddle with the president and Vice President Joe Biden at a retreat in Cambridge, Md., dubbed Reigniting the American Dream.
Mixed in with some other minor actions, like voting on a permanently electronic duck stamp, that's essentially how one month of the 60-day stop-gap short-term extension was spent.
Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer has been critical of the GOP's-determined House calendar, complaining that the body only met for four full legislative days the entire month of January, leaving a diminished prospect for Congress to act in February.
"We shouldn't be surprised the Republicans are not dealing with jobs. From time to time they talk about it, but legislatively, they're not talking about it," Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters at a pen and pad briefing today. "This is an agenda which ignores jobs. Our timing is critical. We have less than eight or nine working days left."
But the House is scheduled to meet for legislative business 14 days in February, five of which are expected to be abbreviated sessions. In that time, the conference committee tasked with extending the payroll tax cut, unemployment insurance, and the so-called "Doc Fix" to the sustainable growth rate that reimburses physicians for Medicare services must complete its work. That bipartisan, bicameral committee is meeting Wednesday for only the second time, but sharp disagreements on how to pay for the extensions persist.
"[Democrats] continue to point out that we can do this in a fair and balanced way by imposing a surcharge on those making over a million dollars and on dealing with oil company subsidies," Hoyer said. "Republicans have been stuck in the mud on any additional revenues from the wealthiest in America to help us solve these problems. We don't agree with that."
Closing oil and gas loopholes would create just a small fraction of the revenue needed to offset the costs of the year-long extensions to the three measures, but Hoyer said that every dollar saved adds up.
"What's the whole rationale for a subsidy? The whole rationale for a subsidy is to provide incentive to boost a product that we need," Hoyer said. "That's a substantive proposal - $30 billion is nothing to sneeze at, and it will help you get to that figure that you need."
With House GOP negotiators sticking to the composition of their year-long extension that the House passed late last year, a senior GOP leadership aide claims Senate Democrats have not presented a plan for a year-long extension with pay-fors.
"Since the House has passed a year-long extension, along with unemployment insurance reforms and bipartisan spending cuts, the White House really should talk to its allies in the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate," Michael Steel, spokesman for the speaker, suggested. "Because the Senate-passed two-month extension has become law, it cannot serve as the Senate 'position' in a formal conference committee."
"We'll see what alternatives that the Republicans put on the table. We're putting our alternative on the table, and we'll see where we go from there," Hoyer responded. "They took the same posture for a number of weeks that they were going to do it their way or the highway. We'll see whether that's the case now. We're going to have to come obviously to a compromise.
While the conferees figure out that boondoggle, this week several House committees will also begin working on the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act, H.R. 7.
The bill aims to create long-term, private-sector job growth by lowering government barriers to American energy production. Republicans said it would help create private-sector jobs and lower gas prices, and repair the country's roads and bridges. Full details on how the bill would be paid for are expected to be announced later this week once the bill is formally introduced.
"Speaker Boehner talked about additional production and the dollars that will generate," Hoyer said, skeptically. "We haven't seen the specifics, but [everyone] agrees that that will be insufficient to get there."
In addition, Boehner told ABC News' Jake Tapper that the bill would include a provision to shift approval of the Keystone energy pipeline from the White House to Congress. One aspect of the two-month extension, agreed to days before Christmas, ensured that Obama would make a decision on the pipeline by the end of February. The administration did not need that long and rejected it earlier this month. The speaker said the president was making a political decision that would cost America 20,000 direct jobs and more than 100,000 indirect jobs.
Hoyer said he believes that the pipeline had merit, but forcing the president into a political decision has dissuaded many Democrats from supporting the project.
"If you're trying to jam the president on this consideration that's given to him by law, to consider whether this is something that's safe to do and meets EPA standards, then I think Democrats would generally oppose it," he said. "A poison pill is trying to put the president in a corner on this issue for political purposes as opposed to substantively getting this considered on its merits. I personally believe it has merit, but I don't believe that we ought to put the administration in a position where they can't consider it in a fashion that is provided for under the law."