To the untrained eye, the clutch of Congressional aides, each toting thick manila folders and trooping up a spiral Capitol staircase bound for the office suite of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) meant very little at 7:42 Friday night.
However, experienced Congressional sentinels immediately interpreted the appearance of these aides as an omen that something was afoot.
For starters, Bill Inglee, the Majority Staff Director of the House Appropriations Committee, led the parade of aides. Many of the reporters who massed for hours outside the Speaker's Office never even glanced up from their iPhones when the group slipped past them. And if they did, most didn't know who they were. But to the trained eye, the arrival of these aides at that moment was a beacon that a deal could be at hand and that the appropriations staff needed to finalize a "bridge" funding bill to keep the government running past midnight.
Three hours later, President Obama, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced an agreement. Reid whipped the legislation through the Senate minutes before midnight. The House passed the same bill at 12:40 am Saturday. And the president signed the bridge bill into law Saturday afternoon.
Technically, Congress didn't fund the government for more than 13 hours Saturday. But lawmakers formulated the legislation in such a way to backfill the lapse with fiscal caulk so there was no break in government operations.
There is a misconception that this race to Friday's witching hour is over and the crisis is averted. But yet another sprint toward another series of deadlines began overnight Saturday in an effort to finalize the deal cut between the president, speaker and majority leader.
There may be a deal.
But this is not quite over.
That's because there are two chronometers at play again this week. And policymakers toiled around the clock over the weekend to hit the newest deadlines.
The biggest deadline looms Thursday night at 11:59:59 pm. That's when the "bridge" bill Congress approved late Friday and early Saturday to fund the government expires. The plan is for lawmakers to approve the broader agreement by that point. But that requires some serious hustle.
For starters, the House meets at 11 tonight. In many respects, that's the first deadline. House Republicans want to adhere to their "three day" rule of posting legislation online so lawmakers and the public have ample time to review what's on the table. So there's a crush to finish writing the text of the "deal" so the House can prep the package for debate on Wednesday. The GOP leadership knew it would take several days to draft the legislation. So if the House posts the bill tonight, leadership hopes it can summon the bill to the floor Wednesday (in compliance with the three day rule) and then move the package to the Senate with a day to spare.
But only once the bill is written will people know what's in the bill and whether they can support it. Remember, the "deal" was only agreed to by the president, Boehner and Reid. Big legislation like this can unravel quickly once the details emerge. The House approved the bridge funding measure 348-70 early Saturday. However, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) predicted that the next vote won't cruise to passage with the same overwhelming margin.
Will it be close?
"I won't know until I work it," said McCarthy.
Part of the problem is that the Obama-Boehner-Reid triumvirate only hammered out five or six specifics and bartered for Senate votes on defunding Planned Parenthood and upending the health care law. Throughout the negotiations of the past two weeks, Boehner was fond of telling reporters that "nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. Well, that's what House and Senate appropriations staffers labored on over the weekend, slogging through about 100 additional unresolved issues.
42 House Democrats voted against the bridge bill Saturday. But lawmakers expect a lot more to vote nay on the next round. Remember, Republicans appear to have gotten most of what they asked for, starting with deeper cuts. Which is why Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) is skeptical.
"I need to look at the details," Van Hollen said in an interview with Fox when asked if he could support the new package. "It's not clear what cuts are being made."
House and Senate liberals could be loathe to support the new measure. Many are already stung from the deal Mr. Obama forged in December with Senate Republicans on tax cuts. That infuriated scores of rank-and-file Democrats. Many fear they've been sliced out of the process again."The (Congressional Black Caucus) is committed to responsibly reducing the deficit," said CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) in a statement. "But not at the expense of seniors, education or our families' health care."
And then there are conservatives. Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Steve King (R-IA) immediately published statements Saturday lamenting that the GOP leadership didn't defund Planned Parenthood or the health law. Bachmann called the agreement "a disappointment." Specifically on health care, King asserted that the Republican brass "surrendered" and "ceded a significant amount of ground on this issue."
This is to say nothing of a litany of other issues which could stymie the legislation later this week.
The most vexing fights? Struggles over protecting endangered species, needle exchange provisions and funding for NASA's space exploration programs.
Several lawmakers contacted by Fox worry that even though the president, Boehner and Reid signed off on a deal, this legislation could face what one called a "TARP fate."
TARP is the acronym for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. In the fall of 2008, the U.S. faced the most dire financial crisis since the Great Depression. So Congress and President George W. Bush wrote a bill to create TARP and salvage imperiled financial institutions.
The problem was that the imprimatur of key leadership figures didn't translate to votes on the House floor. There was a revolt among conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats who torpedoed the first attempt to pass TARP in the House. That sent the stock market into a tailspin, synchronized with the vote. However, lawmakers conjured up the necessary votes a few days later to successfully approve the package.
Granted, the country faced an economic catastrophe. But the passage or failure of TARP wasn't contingent upon any clock. In the case of this bill, lawmakers must approve it by Thursday night or everyone is right back where they were Friday night.
Then there's what one lawmaker described as the "creeper vote" factor.
It's said that house guests, like fish, start to smell after three days. Lawmakers worry the same could be true here. No one knows yet exactly what is in the bill due to come out later tonight. But once it materializes, some fear that "vote creep" could jeopardize the legislation as lawmakers and the public alike might not support what's in the final product. Plus, the longer this bill sits on the counter in the Congressional kitchen, the better its chances to emit an odious stench.
After all, cutting an agreement like this may have been the only option available to President Obama, Speaker Boehner and Leader Reid.
For those three, this was a test reminiscent of the fabled Starfleet Academy training exercise known as "The Kobayashi Maru" in the Star Trek canon. The simulation is a "no-win" scenario where a starship captain must decide whether to rescue a distressed ship or provoke war.
The only Starfleet Academy cadet to have "beaten" the Kobayashi Maru test is the legendary Captain James T. Kirk.
"I don't believe in no-win scenarios," Kirk said.
When taking his Kobayashi Maru test, Kirk "won" by rescuing the stranded vessel. To do so, Kirk reprogrammed the simulation.
With just moments on the clock Friday, President Obama, John Boehner and Harry Reid also faced a no-win scenario. In the end, the trio averted a government shutdown. Boehner executed the most dexterous performance by simultaneously solidifying his standing among conservatives yet molding an agreement with the president and Reid.
Still, the scenario is not complete. And Boehner could have the most to lose.
No one is sounding a distress signal yet. But like with the TARP vote, no one is ever certain what problems could emerge in these high-stakes tournaments.
The trick for Boehner may be to rip a page from Captain Kirk's playbook and reprogram the simulation, refusing to accept defeat in a "no-win" scenario.
In "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," Kirk is asked if he's "from outer space."
"I'm from Iowa," Kirk responds dryly. "I just work in outer space."
As it turns out, Boehner's from Ohio. He just works in Congress. Which to many on Capitol Hill is sometimes just as bizarre as outer space.
And we'll know by Thursday whether or not the speaker had to reprogram the simulation to avoid yet another "no win scenario."