Washington Can Even Screw Up Christmas

Washington Can Even Screw Up Christmas

Obama’s Choice: Christmas Vacation or Tax Holliday

"We need to get this done. And I expect that it's going to get done before Congress leaves. Otherwise, Congress may not be leaving and we can all spend Christmas here together."

-- President Obama in Dec. 2 remarks on the expiring Social Security payroll tax holiday at an event announcing new environmental measures for federal buildings.

“With respect to my vacation, I would not ask anybody to do something I'm not willing to do myself. So I know some of you might have been looking forward to a little sun and sand, but the bottom line is, is that we are going to stay here as long as it takes to make sure that the American people's taxes don't go up on January 1st…”

-- President Obama in Dec. 8 remarks in the press briefing room unveiling his countdown clock for the expiration of the payroll tax holiday.

“Look, I’m reluctant to say where he’s going to be on which day because I don’t want to make this about him. And also, it is a very fluid situation.”

-- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney when asked on Tuesday about the president’s vacation plans.

Christmas is a very important holiday for some 246 million American Christians.

It’s also big deal for many of the other 67 million people in the country who like having an excuse to get presents and eat too much, to say nothing of the merchant class that depends on the annual Christmas time spasm of irrational spending to balance the books.

Unwilling to let this moment pass without inserting themselves, President Obama and members of Congress have now managed to make Christmas a political issue.

The president opened the bidding at the start of the month by warning Republicans in Congress that they would miss their Christmas break if they did not give him the extension to the payroll tax holiday set to expire on Jan. 1.

Obama likes the issue because it gives him the chance to say that he wants to put an extra $19 a week in the average worker’s pay envelope and take the money from the top 1 percent or 2 percent of earners. Republicans have been ouchy about extending the holiday because it comes from the taxes once intended to fund Social Security and provides nominal economic stimulus since it is temporary and dibbled out in small sums.

But the best part of the deal for Obama is that Republicans oppose it for any reason. Better than being able to run for office as the guy that wants to give you free money is being the free money guy running against the party that wants to take it away from you.

So, after a year of bruising budget battles, the president believed he had found his sweet spot. He could make an explicit connection to his “middle-class warrior” rhetoric and his long-sought after tax increase for top earners while at the same time moving the discussion away from where it had been for 11 months: his political weak spots of spending, debt and deficit.

Just as Bill Clinton had initiated a Christmas time government shutdown in his battle with House Republicans in 1995, Obama was hoping to cast his Republican adversaries as Gingrichy Grinches as they deprived the long-term unemployed of continued benefits and snatched that $19 a week away from Mr. and Mrs. America.

The bet was that the House could pass no bill acceding to any of the president’s demands. That would leave Speaker John Boehner facing legislation passed by the Democrat-controlled Senate that might possibly have some form of new taxation in it. Imagine the situation if that had transpired and House Republicans were turning down an extension of the payroll tax holiday on revenue grounds alone. It would have been murder.

But House Republicans flipped the script and passed a tax holiday extension of their own, cherry picking pay fors out of Obama budget proposals and the president’s long-shelved debt reduction committee.

That sent the Senate scrambling and, unable to come up with 60 votes for any year-long plan, leaders from both parties opted to pass a temporary extension and then resume negotiations in the New Year. This was cool with the president because it would allow him to keep the discussion on his preferred issue -- your $19 versus Ritchie McHedgefund’s private jet – into next year. Democrats love this issue because it allows their party, which is running on the need for a tax increase, to strike a tax-cutting, or at least tax-cut-maintaining, pose.

After the Senate passed the bill, its members promptly fled the federal city, dropping the two-month stopgap measure on the lower chamber. When Boehner offered his members the chance to have the debate again in two months but on politically worse terms, they said, “bah humbug.” While this has been cast as some sort of rebellion, it seems pretty consistent with the way the House has operated in the Boehner era.

Except for on a couple of issues, most notably the enforcement of the War Powers Resolution, Boehner has let his members decide how to proceed. The idea that Boehner would now start jamming his own team a la Nancy Pelosi or Tom DeLay would be incongruent.

So, just to recap: Obama and the Senate tried to jam the House, but the House jammed Obama and the Senate. Then the Senate tried to jam the House. Now, the House is trying to jam the Senate back.

This is all fairly normal stuff and, in a perverted, petty kind of way, sort of how the Framers intended things to go. There are still 10 days before anything happens and that much time to keep fighting this inter-chamber, inter-branch skirmish.

Ah, but then there’s Christmas: the most wonderful time of the year to call one’s political opponents a bunch of heartless bastards.

But it is also a moment in which we are reminded that these squabbling politicians are actually, in many ways, human beings. Most of them celebrate Christmas and all of their families are probably sick and tired of seeing their plans interrupted for more kabuki performances.

But, as Obama is now discovering, politicians can’t fully exploit Christmas as a political opportunity if they don’t bring their own vacations and holiday observances to the negotiating table. Politics is a rotten business, and many of its practitioners end up living rotten lives because of it.

And so it comes to pass that the nation’s chief magistrate, commander in chief and head of state must worry over whether he can spend Christmas with his wife and daughters. It doesn’t help him that his home state is a tropical island and that his preferred retreat is a posh pad worthy of the Ritchie McHedgefunds he so deplores. But the biggest problem is that Obama sought to make political use of Christmas in the first place.

If he doesn’t go, he looks like he’s been trapped by Congress. If he does go, House Republicans will assuredly sprint back to Washington to resume their effort at jamming, with the president isolated in his Hawaiian hideout.

When this matter is being hashed out next week, Obama may come to regret making Christmas a part of it at all.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“When a Roman conquering general returned and had a triumphal procession to Rome with the crowd cheering him and calling him all kinds of godly names, there was a courier in the back of the chariot who whispered in his ear "Remember, thou art but a mortal." Obama ought to hire that guy. He is old, but I think he is still around.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.