Crazy Days in Congress

Every so often, there's a day on Capitol Hill that convulses with so much news and turns of fortune, that you don't quite know what to make of it.

Last Thursday was one of those days.

My colleague Trish Turner reports on the Senate for FOX. In an email last Thursday, Turner wrote me that it sometimes feels like she covers a circus, quickly adding that it seems "like a circus in the Twilight Zone." In response, I added that reporting on Congress is like "a circus in the Twilight Zone in a galaxy, far, far away."

And most who work on Capitol Hill would be hard-pressed to disagree.

To wit: Last Thursday, House Democrats prepared to debate the tax bill. Then they had to postpone a procedural vote on the issue because there was carping about how lawmakers might consider the measure. The Senate readied itself to remain in session around the clock to hear a clerk read a nearly 2,000-page omnibus spending bill out loud at the request of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). The exercise was expected to burn anywhere from 36 to 50 hours. Then Senate Democrats yanked the omnibus package off the floor because they didn't have the votes to pass it. I haven't even mentioned the Capitol complex going on lockdown for a few minutes while police contended with a man who they thought was packing heat. And that's to say nothing of the arrival of the first measurable snowfall in Washington this winter.

At times, Capitol Hill events play out like you're in a videogame and Congress is just a computer-generated world. As you maneuver through the game, the Congressional Master Control Program throws more advanced challenges at you. And you try to avoid getting "de-rezzed" or killed

At the rate things were going last week, I half expected to be strolling through the Capitol Rotunda and suddenly be digitized like a character in TRON. I thought I'd be deposited onto a light cycle for a sprint through the Capitol Hill mainframe at any minute.

We knew Thursday was going to be hectic. The House Democratic Caucus huddled in the basement of the Capitol as the House rocketed toward passing the tax relief measure. The decision to forge ahead with the bill remained unpopular with Democrats. President Obama crafted the deal with Senate Republicans. And the week before, House Democrats conducted a non-binding vote that implored House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to keep the legislation off the floor without first conducting major surgery.

But the bill garnered just enough backing from Democrats and many Republicans to cross the finish line.

"It seems pretty clear that the handwriting is on the wall and that this is going to pass," lamented Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), who requested wholesale changes.

Meantime, the scrum in the Capitol basement, continued, as the throng of journalists tried to flag down wavering lawmakers for comments. Some lawmakers blew past the wall of reporters, disgusted with what they were going to have to vote on.

Someone suggested that the reporters enlist the services of New York Jets strength coach Sal Alosi to trip the reluctant lawmakers as the breezed past and get them to talk.

Then everything came nearly unglued. At least for a couple of minutes.

BlackBerries flamed with reports that police locked-down the Capitol, barring anyone from coming or going. Yet no one knew why. The caucus meeting in the basement continued unabated. Action on the House and Senate floor progressed as though nothing was wrong. Then came word that Capitol Police were chasing a "gunman" near the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

How serious was this? A major breech? People recalled the arrest of a man carrying a gun on his way to "see" U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts nearly two years ago. Police later unearthed the man's car, packed with explosives.

Then there was an episode in the summer of 2009 when U.S. Capitol Police shot and killed a man after a high-speech chase down the wrong way of Louisiana Avenue. Police shot and killed the suspect after he crashed near a Senate garage and drew a weapon on them.

But within moments, the all-clear came. As well as pictures from an aide in the office of Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). The aide witnessed the police take down the suspect right outside Collins' office suite and shot multiple pictures of a cadre of Capitol Police tackling the suspect in the snow.

As it turned out, the suspect acted very aggressive toward police. But ultimately had no firearm.

So back to the tax cut debate on the House floor...

Nearly every piece of legislation that comes before the House must first receive a "rule." The rule establishes how much debate the House will devote to a given issue and if any amendments are in order. It's kind of like playing baseball each day and changing the rules before the game. Yesterday it took four balls to secure a walk and three strikes for a strikeout. Today, it's six balls and four strikes.

The full House must always approve the "rule" to establish the terms of debate on each piece of legislation. If it can't pass the rule, the House can't debate the actual bill.

Next thing you know, Democrats snatch the "rule" off the floor, dipping the Capitol into chaos as people start wondering if the House can pass the tax bill.

In short, the rule governing debate was a mess. When reporters asked House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) who didn't like the rule, she responded "just about everybody."

The biggest problem was this: in an effort to satisfy Democrats unhappy with the tax bill, Democratic leaders allowed them to consider a plan sponsored by Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) to hike the estate tax. The Senate bill didn't allow for an increase in the estate tax. So if the House approved the Pomeroy plan, the House had then altered what the Senate approved on the tax bill. And that would send it back immediately to the Senate, short-circuiting a final House vote on the overall bill.

In other words, if the tax bill failed and never became law at all, folks could point to the vote on the Pomeroy amendment as the vote where lawmakers "voted to raise taxes" since it redirected the measure to the Senate.

So, Democrats went back to the drawing board to concoct a plan to combat the insurrection of their members. This played out during a huge huddle that massed on the House floor. At one point, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) emerged from the House chamber, shaking his head.

"My brain's going to blow up after this," Quigley muttered.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who led the fight to persuade Pelosi against bringing the bill to the floor shared Quigley's sentiment.

"My mind has stopped working," DeFazio told a clutch of reporters near the Will Rogers Statue, close to the House floor.

"I don't know how you miscalculate," said DeFazio of Pelosi's decision to move ahead after her caucus vote last week. "This week, it was as if last week didn't happen. And now today, last week did happen."

House Democrats restructured the "rule" to allow a series of scenarios that would call for a final vote. And that meant that despite the protestations of DeFazio and others, the bill was indeed coming to the floor.

This was just the afternoon acrobatics on Capitol Hill.

An evening debate and midnight vote on the tax bill was still to come. Not to mention the reading of the omnibus measure.

After covering Capitol Hill for so many years, I now know what it's like to be a Broadway actor. The performers often arrive at the theatre around noon on Saturdays and Sundays to prepare for a matinee. The show ends around 5, they grab dinner, pay bills or catch a few winks before the evening show.

The same is true here in Congress. All of the shenanigans with the caucus meeting, the police incident and the issue with the "rule" were part of the matinee. But we were on track for a big evening show with the tax cut bill debate and the reading of the omnibus bill looming.

So around 4:30 pm, I grabbed some lunch and caught up on email, prepping for a command performance that night.

As it turned out, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) withdrew the omnibus off the floor because it didn't have the votes, sparked by a firestorm over earmarks.

The House launched its debate on the tax bill around 7:40 pm and approved it just before midnight.

I finally pulled out of my Capitol Hill parking space at 2:06 am Friday after chipping away at the layer of snow that sealed my car.

So, Tuesday is shaping up to be one of those bizarre days, too. The Senate is scheduling procedural votes on a spending bill to keep the government open and trying to finish a weapons treaty with Russia.

The House has to approve money to keep the government open, too, as well as a list of other items.

Tuesday also marks the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. It also features a total lunar eclipse, which according to scientists, could make this the darkest day on Earth since 1638. That's the last time a full, lunar eclipse unfolded on the winter solstice.

With so much on the Congressional docket, I'm sure someone out there will try to find poignancy with this Tuesday being the darkest day in 372 years.

And even though Tuesday is the shortest day of the year on the Gregorian calendar, grizzled Capitol Hill veterans know it could prove to be one of the longest.