Getting this straightened out should take all of about ten minutes on the floor today. But there's actually some difference of opinion about just how to get the measure they need to the floors of the respective houses, and just which one needs to do what, and when.
Here's how the House-first fix goes:
1. Some poor sap who's had to hang around in DC all this time will introduce a new two-month extension bill (including UI and the Medicare "doc fix"), and then ask unanimous consent that all the rules that would normally preclude its immediate consideration be waived, and that the bill be considered passed.
2. Barring any objection, that will do the trick for the House. The bill then goes to the Senate.
3. The Senate convenes and pulls the same trick, taking up the House bill and passing it by unanimous consent. That clears it for the White House and the President's signature.
As part of the deal, Democrats in the House and Senate agree to appoint conferees to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the old bill, H.R. 3630, probably with the aim of emerging with a full-year plan that can pass both houses. They'd have the two months during which today's new bill is effective to get that job done.
And here's the Senate-first play:
Senate leaders plan to pass the two-month payroll-tax-cut package by unanimous consent shortly after 9:30 a.m. when the upper chamber convenes for a previously scheduled pro forma session.
The unanimous consent agreement will make passage of the proposal contingent on the House sending over a bill identical to the legislation being held at the Senate desk.
In other words, some poor sap Senator asks unanimous consent to take up and pass a Senate vehicle containing the language of the Reid-McConnell compromise bill that was used to amend H.R. 3630 last week, plus a new and agreed-upon technical accounting fix requested by Republicans in the days since.
But it's not entirely clear to me from this description how having the Senate approve a bill and hold it at the desk enables the House to pass the same bill. They can adopt the identical language, but unless the Senate sends the bill over to the House (putting the House "in possession of the papers"), whatever the House sends the Senate will be a separate bill. Though I suppose anything's possible with unanimous consent. The Senate has, in the past few weeks, taken actions (presumably by unanimous consent) notwithstanding not having received the papers from the House.
Why would it be important (or "important") for the Senate to go first? Well for one thing, it's a legitimate gripe at this point that no one trusts the Republican House to follow through on a deal. But perhaps more to the point, Democrats want this to be their bill. They broke the Republicans on this one, and they want to be the ones to put the winning plan (not a value judgment on the plan itself) forward.
A few loose ends:
Why do they have to have a new bill? Why can't they just fix the old one?
This is actually the fastest way to fix the problem. When the House rejected the Senate amendment to H.R. 3630 earlier this week, it sent the bill back to the Senate. That put the Senate in possession of the papers, and meant that the next move belonged to them. But the only move left for the Senate to make would be to appoint conferees, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was refusing to do that until Republicans at least locked the temporary extension in place. The Senate couldn't just pass the papers back to the House and tell them to try again. Nor can the Senate just start amending the old bill again. They've had their shot at it, and none of the text has changed since they did. The only question they can be asked about H.R. 3630 at this point is whether they'll agree to a conference or not.
In addition, to at least some of the players, having H.R. 3630 available as a vehicle for negotiations on a longer-term package makes some sense. So the easiest thing to do became introducing a new vehicle, filling it up with most of the same stuff, making it last for two months, and then using unanimous consent to move it along, in parallel to H.R. 3630.
Can something still go wrong?
Absolutely. Today's new bill will have to move by unanimous consent if it's going to get done before Christmas, and without actually calling the membership back to DC to vote. But unanimous consent requires just what it sounds like. That is, if anyone at any of the points in the process where unanimous consent is asked should stand and say, "I object," the procedure gets blown up. That won't by itself kill the bill, but it would mean that everyone would have to fly back to Washington during the holidays, and they'll likely want to kick the shit out of the a-hole who opened his mouth.
That's why you'll see a lot of Twitter and Facebook-based grumbling and gnashing of teeth from Teabagger Republicans about how terrible this whole thing is, but probably won't hear a peep out of them to actually stop it. Not only will all your colleagues be pissed off at having to interrupt their philandering and/or quality time with their families, but the big mouth himself will have to get back to DC and show up at work in order to object. And did I mention that today is Friday?!
What if someone does object?
Well, no big deal, really. Except that everyone will be mad. What will happen is that the proceedings will stop, the House will be summoned back to Washington, and a vote will be scheduled for early next week. Then everyone will vote outvote the objector, and decide later just how mad they're going to be, and how to manifest that anger with their obnoxious colleague.
What about the Keystone XL pipeline thing?
I'm not sure. That's already in H.R. 3630, and was a part of the Reid-McConnell deal. And it sounds like the administration was generally unconcerned with it, at least in terms of whether it would sway their decision-making on approving the pipeline. So if the administration doesn't care (because it's going to do what it's going to do, regardless of this deadline nonsense), then I guess they might stick it into this new bill as well, or keep it in the new Reid-McConnell vehicle. But Republicans could, for the sake of expediency, leave it out of today's bill, rely on its presence in H.R. 3630, and hope for the "best" (from their perspective) in conference negotiations. However they decide to carry it forward, it almost certainly will go forward, since it's the face-saving device McConnell is clinging to in all of this, even as the White House insists it'll be ineffective in forcing a policy change.