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Road Map: Wednesday House Departure Increasingly Unlikely

House Democrats are grumpy. Not only are Members unlikely to leave town by Wednesday, but their No. 1 domestic priority, health care reform, is teetering on the edge across the Dome.

[IMGCAP(1)]“It’s in the Senate’s hands,— one House Democratic leadership aide said. “We have a plan, but like everything else, it’s dependent upon our wonderful other legislative body. I wouldn’t book vacation travel for this weekend.—

House Republicans, meanwhile, are sitting back and watching it all with a smile.

“Have a Harry, Harry Christmas,— one House Republican leadership aide quipped in the Capitol on Monday afternoon, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) grasped for a way to pass a health care bill and a must-pass Defense bill. That Defense package with an attached debt-limit hike of up to $1.9 trillion is the one imperative keeping the House around, and House Democrats are insistent on passing it with an infrastructure-heavy jobs package attached before going home. The jobs element is particularly important, aides said, so that Members have something to tout back home over the holidays, with the $787 billion March stimulus package getting long in the tooth and the party’s other priorities piled up in the Senate.

“There is a frustration in our Caucus that the Senate and the White House are dragging their heels on a jobs package, and we just need to act and not be bound by that,— another House leadership aide said.

Several endgame scenarios were being floated Monday, although leadership had yet to settle on one by press time.

“Things are so fluid right now that nobody knows what’s going to happen,— a Democratic leadership aide said.

The ideal from the House perspective would be to cobble together a mega Defense package with Senate Democrats and the White House that would combine a robust jobs package including more than $70 billion for infrastructure, unemployment benefits, pay-as-you-go legislation and the debt-limit increase.

Under that scenario, the House would be able to leave town Wednesday for the remainder of the year.

But House Democrats were also considering various other possibilities in the likelihood they can’t reach a deal that quickly. One possibility would be to include a smaller debt-limit hike and a scaled-down jobs package. The House could also pass a standalone jobs plan.

Or, the House could pass the Defense bill attached to the still-forming jobs package on Wednesday, leaving out the debt-limit increase. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a contingent of 30 or so Members from both parties could then make it to Copenhagen for the end of the United Nations climate conference.

The expectation is that the Senate would then amend the measure by adding the debt limit and trimming some of the jobs items, forcing the House to then come back and send it to the president’s desk.

Extensions of unemployment benefits may be the easiest to include; estate tax legislation, a “doc fix— to prevent a cut in doctor pay under Medicare, tax-cut extensions and a host of other cats and dogs could end up as hitchhikers on the Defense bill.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) was polling Members on Monday to see if they would be available for a vote this Saturday. Of course, even that schedule could be optimistic given the Senate’s glacial pace of late.

Another advantage of passing a debt-limit-free Defense package on the initial vote is that it could garner significant bipartisan support; more than 170 House Republicans signed a letter Monday to Pelosi vowing to vote “no— on the Defense measure as long as the debt-limit hike is attached.

“It is shameful that during a time of war, Democrats are using our troops as leverage to raise the national debt limit,— House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.

The House Republican criticism came even though they did the exact same thing in 2004 when they voted to attach a debt-limit increase to the Defense spending bill.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel on Monday said that was a different time. “What is different is Washington Democrats’ unprecedented spending spree,— Steel said. “The American people are saying ‘enough is enough’ and Republicans are listening.—

The flip-flop on the maneuver is bipartisan, naturally. Democrats who then ripped the maneuver as purely political are now eager to employ it, blaming the poor economy President George W. Bush bequeathed to President Barack Obama. “We got handed this nice lemon, and we have to dig our way out of this,— a Democratic leadership aide said. “They were funding a war of choice and tax cuts for the wealthy.—

Theoretically, the Senate could simply pass a debt-limit hike on its own because the House sent over a bill allowing for the increase earlier this year. But that would take days of time in the Senate that they do not have, and it would have difficulty passing without the cover of voting for the troops. And that hike is much smaller, forcing Democrats to come back next year before the midterm elections to raise it yet again.

At any rate, the House and Senate will also have to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government funded while the details are worked out, given that the existing CR expires Dec. 18.

So load up on your eggnog. We’re probably going to be here awhile.

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.

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