House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) stood before a posse of reporters near the Will Rogers Statue in the U.S. Capitol late Tuesday afternoon. Issa had just emerged from a 20-minute session with Attorney General Eric Holder. Issa and Holder have been at loggerheads for months over the release of documents related to the Justice Department's Fast and Furious gun-walking program. And with a meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning to prepare a contempt of Congress resolution for Holder, Issa yielded no quarter.
"Ultimately, the documents necessary to cause a postponement appear to be in their possession. We are hoping that we have them tonight," Issa said.
Yes. But I pointed out to Issa that in his Monday missive to Holder, the California Republican wanted the papers in question on his desk Tuesday morning.
"The deadline will always move to the very last minute," replied Issa.
Issa was clearly referring to a possible, last-ditch effort by Holder to avert a markup of the contempt resolution. But whether he intended to or not, Issa was really telling the story of the 112th Congress.
Very last minute deals to avert multiple government shutdowns. Very last minute measures to hike the debt limit. Very last minute deals to extend a payroll tax break. Very last minute scrambles by the so-called supercommittee to forge an agreement - followed by abject failure.
The list goes on and on and on.
And this is why Congress is once again facing a wall of very last minute things to do this very year. A pressing transportation bill. An effort to avoid a spike in student loan rates. Bills to keep the government running. The renewal of tax breaks. A perpetual flirtation with failing to patch the "doc fix" (so physicians who see Medicare patients don't lose federal subsidies). Yet another need to raise the debt ceiling. A desire to quash the arbitrary, mandatory spending cuts scheduled to hit early next year called the "sequester."
The dithering of the 112th Congress makes Hamlet look like Harry Truman.
Perhaps it was only appropriate that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) summoned top transportation bill negotiators to a meeting just moments before the Issa/Holder confab Tuesday. Funding for the nation's transportation programs expires at the end of the month if lawmakers fail to break an impasse.
"Hmm..." pondered House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) when a phalanx of reporters peppered him with questions after the leadership huddle.
As reporters gathered around Mica, the Florida Republican remained mum for nearly 30 seconds as he pondered what to say.
"We did have a very good meeting. Leadership instructed (Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara) Boxer (D-CA) and me to double-down our efforts," Mica said. "We're going to take it hour-by-hour and see if we can get the job done."
Taking things "hour-by-hour" is remarkable, considering the fact that Boehner first unveiled his concept for a transportation bill last fall. Never mind that the House began debating the package in February. Yet Congress is locked in a "very last minute" stalemate as the sides attempt to sidestep yet another legislative doomsday scenario.
What happens if Congress fails? For starters, the federal government can't collect the gasoline tax that's slapped on every gallon of fuel. That money flows to the Highway Trust Fund which farms out dollars to states for transportation projects. No tax, no fund. But failing approve a full bill means hundreds of major construction projects around the country come to a screeching halt. That kills jobs and wounds the economy as the country struggles to maintain a robust infrastructure to facilitate the delivery of goods and services.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) even suggested Monday that delaying the transportation bill was part of a grandiose, GOP, electoral scheme.
"The Republicans do not want a transportation bill passed because it would send a message to the markets that people would be hired," said Markey. "The Republican goal is to cripple the economy so President Obama is defeated."
So here Congress is hurtling toward a deadline. And everyone is starting to wonder if they'll execute a "very last minute" strategy to avert a transportation crisis.
Two weeks ago, Boehner told reporters that he'd endorse a six-month extension of highway programs if the sides couldn't broker a pact. But House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) didn't seem keen on that idea Tuesday.
"Simply extending by 30 days, 60 days, six months is simply punting and will undermine confidence in the economy," said Hoyer. "I don't think we ought to do an extension. I think we ought to pass either a conference report or the Senate bill."
Democrats are happy to tout the Senate's two-year, $109 billion transportation measure. That's because lawmakers adopted that plan with wide, bipartisan support. Democrats are blasting House Republicans who are holding out for the transportation measure to include a provision to expedite construction of the controversial Keystone pipeline.
"Why should that bill be held hostage to try to get that special care and treatment for an earmark coming out of Canada?" asked Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). "The Republicans like to take hostages."
Hostages or not, the transportation bill is now approaching "very last minute" status. That surprises no one. Congress had to okay a transportation extension earlier this spring. In fact, Congress has stumbled through an amalgam of nine transportation extensions over the past three years.
But the brinksmanship over the highway bill is nothing compared to what awaits Congress later this year.
Inside the Beltway inhabitants characterize the complex series of economic and tax policy issues set to lapse at year's end as the "fiscal cliff."
This is easy to understand. Every Dino De Laurentiis or John Woo action film features protagonists escaping in the nick of time just before the hijacked truck or train they're on races over the proverbial cliff. And the "very last minute" nature of the 112th Congress is racing right to the rim again.
A few moments after Issa concluded his remarks about his efforts to obtain documents from the Justice Department, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) made his way to the microphones. Cummings is the top Democrat on the Oversight panel. He thinks Holder has been "reasonable" in responding to the requests of Issa and his fellow Republicans.
"I really do believe that we were on the one-foot line," lamented Cummings. "We could have gotten this ball across the goal."
And that's where the 112th Congress has stood for most of the past year-and-a-half: on the one-foot line. It's been just inches away from disaster, only to figure out a way to diffuse the bomb and climb to safety at the final second. Sometimes it doesn't make it. Such was the case last summer when negotiations to craft a "grand bargain" to reduce spending fell apart between President Obama and Boehner.
For Cummings, it was as though Issa was planning to move ahead with contempt of Congress proceedings, no matter what Holder offered.
"It appears that the chairman had made up his mind before we even walked into the room," said Cummings.
It's unknown if that was the case with Issa. But many believe the 112th Congress has its mind made up about other things. And that means it will milk every issue down to the "very last minute."