In a Washington where Republicans and Democrats have grumbled, tussled, and poked at one another all year, a Bucks County congressman found himself right in the middle of a tussle over the payroll tax cut.
Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), filling in for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio), walked off the floor Wednesday morning when a top Democrat brought up a bill to extend the tax cut, the latest stalemate to gum up the works in the Capitol.
Fitzpatrick was about to end the session when Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) tried to speak.
Fitzpatrick ignored him, banged the gavel, and walked off, with Hoyer shouting after him.
"Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask for unanimous consent that we bring up the bill to extend the tax cut to 160 million Americans," Hoyer shouted. "As you walk off the floor, Mr. Speaker, you're walking away, just as so many Republicans have walked away from middle-class taxpayers, the unemployed, and very frankly as well from those who will be seeking medical assistance from their doctors - 48 million senior citizens. . . ."
Fitzpatrick said later that Hoyer's request went against long-standing House policy requiring both parties' leadership to approve "unanimous consent" agreements.
"He knew that," Fitzpatrick said from Washington. "He tried to create a media moment."
And he succeeded. The video of the mini-drama quickly went up on political blogs and news websites.
Though of little consequence, the moment and its quick trip to the Web - courtesy of Democratic operatives - epitomized the seemingly nonstop public relations battle both parties are fighting as they strive for the appearance, at least, of problem-solving.
For now, one neutral expert says, Republicans are losing that battle. They support the idea of the tax cut but risk coming off as the bad guys while Democrats weave a narrative about GOP obstructionism hurting the economy and the middle class.
"I think they're shooting themselves in the foot or some more vital part of their anatomy," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who studies congressional behavior. "They really misjudged this seriously."
Thus far, House members from the Philadelphia area and South Jersey are sticking to party lines, with Democrats supporting and Republicans rejecting a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut in Tuesday's vote - on a bill that had passed the Senate, 89-10, last weekend.
If the cut expires Dec. 31, it would affect nearly every household. An estimated three million people would lose unemployment benefits in a few months. Medicare fees paid to doctors would be cut 27 percent. A typical family would see $40 taken from weekly paychecks, White House officials say.
Some Republicans had initially opposed extending the tax cut as bad policy. But more recently, Boehner said Republicans want a year's extension rather than the two-month deal that won Senate approval. A year's extension is what Democrats and President Obama wanted all along, but the parties differ on how to pay for it.
After Tuesday's vote, the House GOP began taking flack from all sides - even from Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and the right-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board.
"Given how [McConnell] and House Speaker John Boehner have handled the payroll tax debate, we wonder if they might end up reelecting the president before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest," an editorial said. "The entire exercise is political, but Republicans have thoroughly botched the politics."
Democrats, meanwhile, are pounding the word bipartisan. "It's been very hard for us to find bipartisan agreement, and the Senate reached bipartisan agreement on this," said Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz (D., Pa.). "It's a lot of procedural gimmicks ... but at the end of the day, they knew this would result in ending this tax break."
Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.) said the two-month solution makes no sense for business owners and accountants trying to plan for 2012. He said the Senate, which has left for holiday break, should return to finish working out a one-year plan. (Boehner asked Obama on Wednesday to call the Senate back to work.)
Democrats "have turned this into a political issue when in fact . . . the practical way is to resolve it now while everybody is sitting together," Meehan, a freshman Republican from Delaware County, said in an interview Wednesday. "Both sides have already agreed that the objective is shared."
Bucks County's Fitzpatrick echoed Meehan's statements. The debate will be the same in 60 days, so why not get the job done now?
"For too long, they've been proposing and passing short-term fixes and simply kicking the can down the road," he said, using a phrase Boehner has employed.
As for Congress itself, its approval rating is the lowest since the Gallup poll began asking in 1974: Only 11 percent of 1,019 people surveyed last week gave it a thumbs-up. A CBS News-New York Times survey in October registered 9 percent.
The latest stalemate isn't helping, said Baker.
"You get an 89-10 vote out of the U.S. Senate, which is astonishing," he said. "For the House Republicans to reject that is really to reject what a lot of Americans want, which is bipartisan cooperation."