Atop the House chamber Wednesday morning, the flag fluttered in the breeze. In his office underneath the Capitol dome, House Speaker John Boehner twisted in the wind.
His House Republicans had killed a bipartisan plan to cut taxes for 160 million Americans, earning themselves an avalanche of criticism and condemnation from friend and foe alike. So Boehner assembled nine of his House Republican colleagues in his conference room, invited in the TV cameras and proclaimed that Republicans really and truly want to enact the payroll tax break that they just defeated.
“We’re here. We’re ready to go to work,” Boehner announced.
But the only thing he was working on, it turned out, was damage control.
Fox News’ Chad Pergram, noting that Boehner’s talking points were mostly about legislative process, asked, “Do you think that you’ve lost the argument?”
“We’re here. We’re ready to work,” the speaker repeated.
Reuters’ Tom Ferraro asked what Boehner made of the criticism from Senate Republicans “like Scott Brown, who says you’re playing politics.”
“We’re here, ready to go to work,” Boehner answered.
CNN’s Deirdre Walsh further annoyed the speaker by mentioning the savage editorial in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal that branded the GOP payroll tax strategy a “fiasco.” Another reporter asked if there might be some way to back down on his refusal to accept the Senate’s two-month extension of the payroll tax cut.
“We’re here, ready to work,” Boehner said.
The Associated Press’ Dave Espo asked “if any of the 10 of you intend to go home for Christmas.”
“We’re here, ready to do our work,” Boehner said.
At exactly the moment House Republicans were executing the failed photo-op, Democrats were on the House floor, trying to disrupt the day’s “pro forma” session with a stunt designed to further embarrass the majority.
Although most House members had gone home for the holidays, House leaders arranged the perfunctory sessions so that the chamber wouldn’t technically go into recess without passing the payroll tax cut.
But as the speaker pro tempore, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., sought to bring the pro forma session to a close, “pursuant to Section 3B of House Resolution 493,” Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip, interrupted to request that the chamber bring up the Senate bill. Fitzpatrick walked off the dais.
“Mr. Speaker, you’re walking out!” Hoyer called after him. “You’re walking away just as so many Republicans have walked away from middle-class taxpayers.” A few seconds later, the sound system was cut off and the C-SPAN cameras were disabled.
Hoyer, joined by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., took his case to the microphones outside the House chamber, where a statue of the late humorist Will Rogers, hands in pockets, seemed to gaze at the pair with a look of amusement.
“The speaker of the House and the Republican leadership were AWOL,” Van Hollen complained.
That’s because the leaders were conferring nearby with their “conferees” — the people Boehner wants to negotiate a new tax deal with Democrats. But there is a problem with this plan: Senate Democrats already negotiated a compromise with Senate Republicans and the House Republicans rejected it. And, to the Democrats’ delight, several of the “conferees” Boehner appointed are on the record opposing the payroll tax cut.
“I’m not in favor of that. I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said one conferee, Dave Camp of Michigan, according to the Hill newspaper.
“From a policy standpoint, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” another conferee, Tom Price of Georgia, told National Public Radio.
The conferees did not address this awkwardness at their photo-op, instead turning the discussion to non sequiturs.
Price gave his perspective “as a physician.” North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers delivered her remarks “as a nurse” and “as a mom.” New York Rep. Nan Hayworth added the information that “I’m a doctor and a daughter of elderly parents” and has “also been a small employer.” Tom Reed of New York let everybody know “I have an 11- and 13-year-old at home.”
Congratulations, all around. None of these credentials, however, avoided the conclusion that the House Republicans had screwed up badly and now stand to take the blame if payroll taxes rise.
Two minutes after their photo-op, the conferees, abandoning the conceit that they were conferring over anything, left Boehner’s conference room.
“Is the conference over?” I asked Price.
He chuckled. “Legislation is not a game of solitaire,” he said. But for House Republicans, it’s getting very lonely.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.