Congress will be home for Christmas — if only in its dreams

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It was early November when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., declared the Senate would consider the Democrats’ social spending bill during the week of Nov. 15.

The best-laid plans…

Of course, Schumer’s aspiration came before everything went haywire in the House of Representatives a few weeks ago. The House struggled to even approve the infrastructure bill. House Democrats finally had to decouple a vote on the infrastructure bill with the social spending bill just to muscle the former through. That came despite demands from House liberals that the Democratic leadership Velcro the respective measures together.

House moderates were then willing to vote on the social spending package — provided they had cost evaluations of the bill from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). They also wanted the bill to appear in the House the week of Nov. 15.

So, Schumer had little choice but to punt.

Schumer had an ominous warning. He notified senators earlier this week that they should “keep your schedule flexible for the remainder of the calendar year.” He added that dealing with the social spending package — to say nothing of averting a government shutdown and avoiding a collision with the debt limit in December — “will likely take some long nights and weekends.”

On Tuesday, Schumer brought the holiday season calendar more closely into focus with regard to the social spending package.

“We aim to pass it before Christmas,” he said.

“Before” is the key phrase there.

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But, just how much “before?”

The “Christmas recess” for Congress used to be sacrosanct. Now the body regularly incinerates the holiday break.

Congress blows through deadlines and weekends all the time. The House and Senate publish a congressional calendar each December that projects the schedule for the upcoming year. Weeks and weeks are often blocked out for the vaunted “August recess.” Yet the House and Senate frequently tear through that respite. Or, if Congress is on recess for August, leaders often recall lawmakers to Washington during that period.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.
(Craig Hudson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In recent years, Congress has made it a habit to convene on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Lawmakers pretty much got no break last Christmas. Then the new Congress began Jan. 3. And we all know what went down on Jan. 6.

The Senate famously (or infamously) approved the initial version of Obamacare during a pre-dawn vote on Christmas Eve 2009. There was a flurry of Senate activity last New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. 

The House and Senate were in session around the clock on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in 2012-2013 in an effort to avoid “the fiscal cliff.” Then-Vice President Biden came to the Capitol for negotiations around 8:30 p.m. ET on New Year’s Eve, 2012. The Senate began voting on New Year’s Eve 2013 around 2:30 a.m. ET. The House was in session throughout the day on Jan. 1, 2013 and still meeting in the wee hours of Jan. 2, 2013.

Reporters and longtime Capitol Hill hands who have endured several versions of these congressional Yuletide sessions suffer from parliamentary PTSD.

Yours truly pressed Schumer this week as to why we wouldn’t expect the Senate to approve the social spending bill on Christmas or New Year’s Eve — if history is our guide.

“I’m not going to speculate on that,” replied Schumer.

WHY IT TAKES CONGRESS SO LONG TO ACT

You may recall the classic Bing Crosby holiday tune “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” The song ends in a doleful fashion.

“If only in my dreams,” is the final, melancholy lyric.

U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaking at a Senate Climate Change Taskforce discussion about a proposal to create a Civilian Climate Corps.

U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaking at a Senate Climate Change Taskforce discussion about a proposal to create a Civilian Climate Corps.
(Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA | Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images | Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Image)

Prophetic?

That line could foretell the fate of everyone on Capitol Hill if the Senate is wrestling with passing the social spending package in a month.

And we haven’t even gotten to what else could chew up late November and December on Capitol Hill. A melee is brewing over averting a government shutdown on Dec. 3. Lawmakers could also face a donnybrook about lifting the debt ceiling. In a letter to Congress, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen indicated lawmakers had until Dec. 15 to address the debt limit.

Oh, but it gets worse.

It’s inevitable that the Senate will change the social spending bill. That’s partly to comply with the “Byrd rule” (specialized Senate budget regulations) and to coax the yea votes from Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

So, the House and Senate will have to sync up at some point. And expect a lot of Senate back and forth in December as the legislation transmogrifies.

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Consider this:

The Senate doesn’t approve the social spending measure until Christmas — or later. Regardless, the measure must return to the House. And if the Senate doesn’t pass the bill until Christmas, that means the bill doesn’t head back across the Capitol Rotunda for the House to align UNTIL JANUARY.

Early January is not a lock.

It took House Democrats months to pass the infrastructure package. A more moderate social spending package, blessed by Manchin and Sinema, won’t sit well with the more liberal House. That could take several weeks to hash out. And Democrats are still working with a scant, three-vote turning radius.

In this image from House Television, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., joins other Democratic members on the House floor late Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Washington, as the House approves a $1 trillion package of road and other infrastructure projects after Democrats resolved a months-long standoff between progressives and moderates, notching a victory that President Joe Biden and his party had become increasingly anxious to claim.

In this image from House Television, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., joins other Democratic members on the House floor late Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Washington, as the House approves a $1 trillion package of road and other infrastructure projects after Democrats resolved a months-long standoff between progressives and moderates, notching a victory that President Joe Biden and his party had become increasingly anxious to claim.
(House Television via AP)

That vote margin could grow by one in mid-January. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick just won the Democratic primary to succeed the late Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., who died. Cherfilus-McCormick faces Republican Jason Mariner in the special election on Jan. 11. The district heavily favors Democrats. President Biden carried the district by 55 points in 2020.

Democrats could need every vote they can get. And, as much time as possible.

Remember that Christmas Eve 2009 Obamacare vote? It took the Senate and House until mid-March 2010 until they finally aligned and approved the final version of the Affordable Care Act.

So, the social spending enterprise could take a couple more months to wind through Congress.

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And to think that this would be all wrapped up in August or September.

Naïve.

“I’ll be home for Christmas. You can plan on me. Please have snow. And mistletoe. And presents by the tree,” sang Bing Crosby.

Home this Christmas?

Maybe everyone should shoot for Valentine’s Day.

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