House Democrats Meet Howard Beale

The scene on Capitol Hill is reminiscent of Howard Beale in the film "Network." You know, the scene where Beale takes the set and implores people to holler out the window "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more."

The trouble in Congress is homage to Twisted Sister and their anthem "We're not Gonna Take It."

And if you listen really closely, you can even detect the chant "We are!!! (clap, clap) Marshall!!!"

Room HC-5 of the Capitol basement morphed into the scene of a pep rally Thursday morning as House Democrats huddled over President Obama's plan to renew across-the-board tax cuts.

"Just say no! Just say no!" came the chant from the Democrats.

Mr. Obama's "deal" with Senate Republicans on the tax rates ignited an insurrection among House Democrats, incensed that the White House sliced them out of the process.

I thought John Belushi was going storm out any moment, a gaggle of fraternity brothers trailing behind him.

For two years, House Democrats believe they have taken it. They've taken it from the White House. They've taken it from the Senate.

House Democrats believe they took it when they passed their version of health care reform. Only to have the Senate water it down.

House Democrats took it on the so-called "cap and trade" climate bill. Only to see it rot in the Senate.

And even as recently as Thursday night, House Democrats took it again on the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy regarding gays serving in the military.

Over the summer, the House repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell. On Thursday, the Senate failed to summon a measure to the floor that would have terminated the practice.

You know what they say about paybacks...

"All through this administration, the House has been a spear-carrier for the president," fumed Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR). "They send something over, the speaker has jammed it through and then Obama has negotiated with the Senate. And they're trying to get us to jam it through again. And a number of us are just saying that's enough."

DeFazio led a petition drive that asked his colleagues to keep the tax pact off the House floor unless a majority of House Democrats were in favor. And at Thursday's meeting, Democrats voted against considering the bill in its current form.

"This vote shows how much the White House screwed this up," steamed a House Democratic leadership aide.

House Democrats feel burned because on Monday, their leadership jawboned with the president at the White House. And hours later, Mr. Obama gave them the slip, announcing an agreement with Republicans, cutting out House Democrats yet again.

"We have a great relationship with the White House," claimed House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT). "We realize he felt he (the president) was put in a box. But we have members who felt they were put in a box."

Vice President Biden visited House Democrats Wednesday night to try to repair the damage. But Biden's entreaty yielded no dividend.

"Biden said take it or leave it and we said leave it," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX).

Think Mr. Obama can clean this up? On Friday, a reporter asked Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) if it would be wise for the president to pay a visit to Capitol Hill to sell his plan. Lee says the CBC has a "strong" relationship with the president. But the CBC isn't backing down on this one.

"The president would hear the same message that we delivered to Biden," Lee said.

And with the wind chill, it feels like what?

If Congress doesn't act soon, tax rates for all Americans will climb January 1. Meantime, the Senate forges ahead with procedural votes on the legislation Monday and is poised to approve the bill.

Welcome to the world's biggest game of chicken as House Democrats are on a collision course with the end of the year.

Simply put, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) won't put the president's plan on the floor unless there are changes.

For two years, the House has dispatched hundreds of bills to the Senate. They've watched the Senate metamorphose their handiwork into legislative mutants that rarely resemble what the House okayed. Or, House Democrats witnessed the bills languish altogether in the Senate.So perhaps the ultimate punctuation point to the 110th Congress comes when the House jams the Senate for a change.

What comes around...

"This was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ).

But there is a very serious endgame afoot that has consequences for both parties. That's to say nothing of what it means for the average American and the health of a fragile economy.

For starters, let's evaluate the options available to Pelosi.

The speaker seems to be following what's known in Congress as the "Hastert Rule," named after former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL). Under his reign, Hastert refused to allow a piece of legislation to hit the House floor unless it enjoyed a "majority of the majority."So Pelosi faces what could prove to be one of the most vexing moments of her Speakership.

Does Pelosi really want her last moments as Speaker of the House to culminate in a renewal of the Bush Administration's tax cuts? Or, if House Democrats stand firm in their position, does the speaker really want to preside over a tax increase for all Americans? Third, if House Democrats fail to budge, could they be facilitating the demise of the Obama presidency?

But there's danger for the GOP, too.

For months, Republicans beseeched President Obama to not let the tax cuts expire. So in the end, Mr. Obama presented the GOP with exactly what it wanted: sweeping renewals of all tax cuts and an extension of unemployment benefits for those out of work long-term.

Talk about take it or leave it. If the Republicans balk at this, the president has them by the tail.

I can imagine the statements emanating from Pennsylvania Avenue about the pound of flesh the president gave to the GOP. What more could Mr. Obama possibly give? Certainly House Democrats are most rankled by this. But there's trouble in River City if Democrats somehow alter the package to their favor and House Republicans then fail to deliver the votes, triggering a tax increase. President Obama may then be able to direct his fire at Republicans for not taking the deal.

And guess what? House Republicans grow more jittery about this package the longer it twists in the wind.

The government says the package now before the Senate would pile on an additional $857 billion to the federal deficit. That makes the legislation significantly more costly than Mr. Obama's much-criticized, 2009 $787 billion stimulus package.

Republicans seized control of the House with a platform of smaller government, lower taxes and smaller deficits. This tax plan explodes the deficit.

"You can't give everybody a tax cut like Oprah Winfrey or Santa Claus," chided Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA). "If you're going to do a tax cut, somebody's eventually going to have to pay for it."

This deadlock reminds me of the famous battle more than two years ago over the economic rescue package. With the credit markets on the brink of collapse, the Bush Administration asked Congress for an emergency infusion of $700 billion to purchase troubled assets. Otherwise, the American economy may have disintegrated.

After days of hand-wringing, the House brought the legislation to the floor on September 29, 2008, expecting a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to approve the bill. But both Democrats and Republicans were skeptical. Republicans didn't like the hole it blew in the deficit. Democrats thought the plan was too vague. And then there were the political factors. Some Democrats were reluctant to back a proposal authored by the Bush Administration. And House Republicans facing re-election were desperate to run as far away from anything crafted by a very unpopular President George W. Bush.

Everyone just hoped the bill would pass.

It didn't. The House defeated the measure 228 to 205. And as the vote melted down, the Dow plunged 777 points in synchronicity, the biggest single-day point drop in history.

A few days later, the Senate passed the bill and then the House followed suit.

It was the blood-letting on Wall Street that broke the impasse on the rescue measure two years ago. But so far, no one sees a path out of this legislative cul-de-sac.

There have been some suggestions that Mr. Obama might be able to convince House Democrats to accept the tax deal if he's able to negotiate something significant in return with Republicans. Big ticket items important to Democrats include clearance from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to torpedo Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Another Congressional aide suggested that the president should try to coax the Senate to approve cap and trade in exchange.

But Donald Payne was skeptical that Mr. Obama could wring any concessions out of Republicans.

"They take every ounce of blood," Payne said of the GOP's negotiating tactics. "They make the James Gang look like angels."

But for now, President Obama's biggest problems are with House Democrats, not Republicans. And after two years, House Democrats are doing their best impression of Howard Beale. They're mad as hell and not going to take this any more.