Sands Through the Congressional Hourglass

"Like sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of our Lives."

The epigram, uttered by the late-MacDonald Carey, is synonymous with the long-running NBC soap opera.

Congress often doubles as a soap opera. So perhaps it's only appropriate that the grains of sand are rapidly slipping through the Capitol Hill hourglass, foretelling an inevitable end to the 111th Congress.

But reports of the demise of 110th Congress have been greatly exaggerated. Especially if you consider the mountain of legislation awaiting action: an intractable tax measure, a spending bill to keep the government running past Saturday, a major missile treaty with Russia known as START, an effort to repeal the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy and the DREAM act, a bill to grant some illegal immigrants the chance to become citizens. And much, much more.

If a delinquent taxpayer can request an extension from the IRS...

A college student who is tardy completing his term paper can seek an extension from the professor...

Why can't Congress do the same?

So what's the Congressional solution when those final grains of sand wane in the hourglass?

Bring in another hourglass.

"I know how much time we have before Christmas," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). "And I hate to report all of this to you. But you know, there is still Congress after Christmas."

Reid's suggestion sent a shockwave across Capitol Hill.

"We're not through. Congress ends January 4th. So we're going to continue working on this stuff until we get it done," Reid warned.

It's almost unheard for Congress to work right up until Christmas, let alone the week between Christmas and New Year's. To say nothing of the days between New Year's and when the new Congress convenes January 5th.

But the sands of time are slipping. And Reid seems dug in. "I think that would be extraordinary," said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ) about Reid's idea of toiling after Christmas. "Anything that were to be done during that period of time would not have the respect of the American people."

Respect or not, it's all about time. And there's not much of it.

On Monday, the Senate voted to curb debate on President Obama's controversial tax measure negotiated with Senate Republicans. The Senate sealed off the vote at 6:29 pm, limiting additional debate to just 30 more hours before a final vote on the issue.

By Tuesday afternoon, the Senate had already harvested most of that 30 hours. But senators couldn't reach an agreement on cashing-in the remaining time and forging ahead to a vote on the tax package.

Reid said he hoped to call the vote by "early evening" Tuesday. A reporter then asked Reid what he meant by "early evening."

"'Early evening' is in the eye of the beholder," replied Reid, attempting to bend time. "But sometime before midnight."

Still, no vote came Tuesday, as Reid failed to secure an agreement on when to vote. The Senate essentially squandered an entire day, waiting for a parliamentary clock to tick down.

No one could agree who was to blame for frittering away the day.

Republicans accused Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) of making the Senate use the time. Sanders vehemently opposes the tax plan and seized the Senate floor for hours last Friday to rail against the legislation.

In turn, Reid argued that Republicans were the time bandits.

"To think we're wasting time now on the 30-hours post-cloture when we have this most-important treaty that we could move to..." lamented Reid about his desire to advance to the START treaty.

By "early evening," Reid relented on scheduling a vote and allowed the 30-hour clock to expire at 12:30 am Wednesday. He pegged the final vote on the tax plan for midday Wednesday.

But this pales compared to the millions of granules of sand that could slip through the Congressional hourglass in the coming days.

A host of Senate Republicans are incensed about a $1 trillion, omnibus spending bill that Congress must approve by the weekend to fund the government through the fall of 2011. The legislation is slightly less than 2,000 pages. And lawmakers want to know what's in the package.

"Where we are is eerily reminiscent of last year," suggested Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

In 2009, the Senate met in the wee hours of Christmas Eve day to approve the health care reform bill. And many senators grumbled that few knew exactly what was in the package.

"Fast forward a year. It's December. It's cold outside. Snow is in the way. And we've got another, in this case, almost 2,000 page bill that no one has seen," complained McConnell.

The release of the omnibus spending bill prompted a coalition of GOP senators to threaten the ultimate in Congressional time thievery.

"If the Majority Leader insists on proceeding to this monstrosity, I'll be joined by many of my colleagues on this side of the aisle to make sure that every word is read out aloud on the floor," admonished Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

Here's why this is a big deal.

In the Senate, bills are "read" three times. This dates back to when legislation was written by quill and there was often only one copy of a bill. So the Senate always read the measure aloud so senators would know what issue they were about to debate. The Senate always conducts a "third" reading right before a final vote on an issue.

In the modern Senate, a clerk only reads the title and a few words of each bill out loud before a senator seeks the "unanimous consent" of his or her colleagues to halt the reading of the package. However, if a single senator objects, the clerk must continue reading.

This can be an incredible time-eater. And the clerk must drone on, so long as one senator objects to the cessation of the reading.

The omnibus spending bill weighs-in at more than 1,900 pages. So if the clerk matches the same 53-pph (pages her hour clip) as last year's health care bill, it could take 40 hours to slog through this behemoth.

But this could be the least of anyone's worries.

The Senate is on track to approve the tax legislation Wednesday. But the House is operating in a different space-time continuum.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has a full-blown insurrection on her hands among liberals and progressives who can't stand the deal President Obama cut with Senate Republicans. Many want to change the bill and won't stand for what the Senate's about to approve.

"What was an uphill battle last week is an up-mountain battle this week," said Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT), one of the main opponents of the Senate pact.

At the very least, Welch wants to hike the rates wealthy Americans would pay on the estate tax.

The House proposal to fillet Mr. Obama's package doesn't sit well with Mitch McConnell.

"This agreement is not subject to being re-opened," said McConnell. "I hope that our friends in the House will understand that the best way to go forward - simply pass the Senate bill, get it down a president who supports the understanding."

But nonetheless, House Democrats are adamant on altering the bill. Which means the House would have to ping-pong the legislation back and forth with the Senate until both bodies approved the same, unified bill.

It's a process that could take days.

So Tuesday night, House Democrats huddled in a caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol to plot their next steps.

"This is just the beginning," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as she emerged from the conclave.

The sands of time hastened their descent through the hourglass.

No one knew exactly what the House might do. Or when.

"I'm just a guy from South Carolina," said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) when asked if he knew the way forward.

"But you're in leadership," one reporter reminded Clyburn as he entered the meeting.

Someone joked that had Pelosi not created a special leadership position for Clyburn in the new Congress (ostensibly, Democrats would have fewer leadership slots after losing the majority), he would indeed be "just a guy from South Carolina."

After two hours of jawboning, the Democrats' broke up. Apparently, with no more answers than when they began.

A few reporters buttonholed House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) as he strode out of the meeting. One asked what surgery House Democrats may try to perform on the tax legislation one it passes the Senate Wednesday.

"We'll see what it looks like at that point in time," Hoyer said.

Someone pointed out to Hoyer that everyone's known what the Senate bill would look like since Monday evening.

Hoyer ducked into a Capitol elevator.

"We don't have much time left," Hoyer replied, just as the door slid shut.