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In A Year Of Partisan Brawls, Congress Goes One More Round

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In a year of deadlines and political fights, Congress is closing with one last partisan brawl. At stake are billions of dollars in tax breaks and unemployment benefits for millions of Americans set to expire Jan. 1.

Just in case you've been out buying presents, working or not watching C-SPAN with bated breath, what happened Tuesday was that the House — specifically Republicans in the House — rejected a bill that had broad bipartisan support in the Senate.

That bill was an interim measure and would have extended jobless benefits and the payroll tax holiday for two months, until a yearlong deal could be worked out. Republicans said two months wasn't long enough.

"Families, employers and workers can't live their lives month to month," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia. "Washington needs to stop adding confusion and more uncertainty to people's lives."

So, Republicans voted to create a conference committee to hash out the differences between the House and the Senate. Speaker of the House John Boehner said it is a system the founders gave us, "as old as our nation and as clear as the Constitution."

"Our House GOP negotiators are here and ready to work with our counterparts in the Senate to resolve the differences as quickly as possible," Boehner said.

We all learned about the conference process in high school civics, but in the current-day Congress, conference committees are quite rare. There have been just three this whole year. Rep. Dan Lungren, a California Republican, says he hopes they're making a comeback.

"Certainly we had these on a more regular basis when I was here in the 1980s," Lungren says. "It's fallen into disfavor, which I think has been a terrible thing, so frankly my hope is that it will work."

Lungren says he's a glass-half-full kind of guy. But the reality is that if this is going to work, someone is going to have to blink. Democrats in both the House and the Senate say they have no intention of appointing members to the committee. And a committee can't even be created without a Senate vote, which at the moment looks unlikely.

Democrats spent most of the day taking turns on the House floor, criticizing Republicans for cooking up this idea and refusing to allow members to vote in favor of the Senate bill.

"Ladies and gentlemen, what is at stake here is a failure to compromise. That is the key," said Rep. David Scott, a Democrat from Georgia. "America is hurting, and what do the Republican Party in the House of Representatives want to do? They want to hurt them some more, by not even allowing a vote on a compromise bill."

What we have now is a political standoff, a final standoff in a year full of brinksmanship that included threats of government shutdown and of debt default, the FAA running out of money and a disaster relief fund down to near empty.

It's no wonder congressional approval has reached an all-time low. According to a new Gallup poll, it stands at 11 percent. That's the lowest it's been since Gallup started asking the question in 1974. And yet, in this fight the parties are still angling for advantage.

Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a seasoned congressional watcher, says both parties seem to think that each has the upper hand this week.

"I think that's part of what's helping to explain why both parties are digging their heels in here," Binder said.

Then there's President Obama, who has made the payroll tax cut his chief priority of the past few months. The House vote gave him yet another opportunity to stand in front of his favorite prop of late: a countdown clock.

"The clock is ticking," Obama said. "Time is running out, and if the House Republicans refuse to vote for the Senate bill or even allow it to come up for a vote, taxes will go up in 11 days."

So now the question is: Who blinks first? And if no one does, who gets the blame?

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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