The Congressional Threats That Didn't Steal Christmas

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For those on Capitol Hill, Christmas might not come at all this year.

With 18 days left to go until we reach the so-called fiscal cliff , House Speaker John Boehner told Republican members of Congress Wednesday not to make plans for the holidays. But conflating Boehner with the Grinch might be premature.

The prospect of canceling Christmas has actually become commonplace in Washington over the past several years. In fact, Obama and/or leaders in Congress have uttered these threats during the month of December for the past three years in a row. And all three years, deals have been struck before Christmas.

In 2009, the first Christmas of the Obama administration, it was healthcare that held up the holiday break. Congress debated healthcare legislation for 24 straight days and on the 25th day, which happened to fall on Christmas Eve, the Senate passed a bill that would guarantee coverage and attempt to rein in costs. (That bill ultimately provided a lot of the framework for the Affordable Care Act.) The Christmas Eve roll call vote marked the first Christmas Eve vote since 1985, and it came after President Obama threatened to cancel his vacation to Hawaii and stay in town through Christmas and until a bill was passed.

2010 has been the only holiday season of during the first Obama term that has gone relatively smoothly. The lame-duck session of the 111th Congress was hugely productive. Congress and the Obama administration worked together to abolish Don't Ask Don't Tell, extend unemployment-insurance benefits, extend the Bush-era tax cuts, ratify a new START nuclear-arms reduction treaty with Russia, among other things - all before leaving town on Dec. 23. But just weeks before those deals were struck, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid trotted out the Christmas threat.

"There's still Congress after Christmas," Reid told reporters in mid-December. "So if the Republicans think that they can stall and stall and stall that we take a break, we're through, we're not through. Congress ends on Jan. 4. So we're going to continue working on this stuff until we get it done, or we have up-and-down votes and find that it can't happen that way."

Last year it was a debate over payrolls looming over Christmas. As Congress came up against another expiration date, this one for an extension of payroll tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year, Senate Democrats announced that they would stay in town until something got done.

"We're going to stay here as long as it takes to get this done," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said at the time. "We will stay here to Christmas and even to New Years to get this done."

Again, the debate came down the wire when Obama signed a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut on Dec. 23 after the measure passed both the Democratically controlled Senate and the Republican controlled House.

So to those facing the prospect of break-free holiday season, take heart. The threat of spending Dec. 25 in the hallowed halls of Congress or the West Wing, it seems, is a great motivator for lawmakers to actually get something done.