WASHINGTON — Just when it seemed like politicians were kind of getting along, crazy season returned to Capitol Hill in full force Wednesday.
Although for the better part of three years, Congress has been unable to conduct even the most basic functions of its job without acrimony, drama, and last-minute brinkmanship, for almost two weeks while debating the use of military force in Syria, Congress seemed for once singularly focused and serious.
Gone was the bitter infighting between Democrats and Republicans, and between Republican leaders and their conference, replaced by serious-minded lawmakers, showing up for multiple classified briefings during the final week of a five-week recess.
They even started working together: Liberals and conservatives joined forces to oppose the war, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Speaker John Boehner both supported the strike, and then practically every elected official in Washington embraced the diplomatic option presented by Russia, indefinitely delaying a vote on authorization.
But the vote delay forced congressional leaders to immediately turn their attention to pressing budgetary matters like keeping the government open, which in turn brought the brief period of comity to a close.
It would seem obvious that keeping the government up and running would be a relatively uncontroversial task, but nothing is that easy on Capitol Hill.
“We can look for reconciliation and peace over Christmas. Maybe we’ll take a pause for Thanksgiving, but that’s about it,” quipped Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez.
Conservatives immediately balked at a plan put forth this week by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, that leadership saw as the best way to get Republicans everything they could want: vote on defunding Obamacare, force the Senate to do so as well, and eventually get a clean continuing resolution passed, leaving them with tons of leverage for a looming debt ceiling battle where they believed they’d eke out some Obamacare concessions from the Senate and the president.
House leadership quickly realized that they wouldn’t have the votes to pass their plan, and by mid-afternoon they had scrapped plans to vote on it.
Even before Congress returned to normal operating procedures, signs that the bipartisanship and serious-minded tone wouldn’t last were already emerging.
For instance, in a response to President Obama’s address to the nation on Syria, Sen. Rand Paul unleashed a series of attacks on the president, arguing that “Twelve years after we were attacked by al-Qaeda, 12 years after 3,000 Americans were killed by al-Qaeda, President Obama now asks us to be allies with al-Qaeda.”
Lawmakers were clearly frustrated by the resurgence of their old divisive ways.
“Of course you get tired of it. I’m also well aware from watching what has happened historically as it relates to the debt limit that most major reforms happen at that debate, so that’s normal. The [continuing resolution] is a sin of our own making. If we would just pass a budget and do our appropriations, we wouldn’t have this,” said Wisconsin Republican Reid Ribble. “You wouldn’t be dealing with all this last-minute kabuki dance that we do around here, but that’s not the situation we have. I don’t have a say over that.”
Frustrated too are Capitol Hill aides, who have begun to view budgetary showdowns like the political version of Groundhog Day. When asked their thoughts about a continuing resolution and the possibility of a government shutdown, a GOP aide simply sent over a YouTube clip from the movie Zoolander, where Will Ferrell’s character declares he feels like he is taking crazy pills.
“Oh my gosh, it’s going to be long,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois. “It’s going to be really crazy. I won’t be shocked if we’re here during the week we were going to be off. It’s going to be an intense couple of months between the [continuing resolution] and the debt limit.”
Just as Syria has absorbed the attention of members, most believe that the spending fight will suck up most of the oxygen on the Hill for the next couple of weeks begging the question if anything else can get done during this work period. But Gutierrez, who has been working on passing comprehensive immigration reform for years, still believes it’s possible Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time.
“As much as we say those things fill the political vacuum, what are we doing today? Suspensions. What did we do yesterday? Suspensions. Did we name it National Rabbit Month? National Appreciate Your Dog Day?” he said. “There’s time to do more than one thing. Just look at the schedule.”