Recalling Battles Of Congress Past

Weekend Edition Saturday guest host Linda Wertheimer talks about Congress' stalemate on tax talks and how the issue is the same, but over the years the rules of negotiating have changed.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

There is nothing new about the Congress coming to a hostile halt at a critical moment - fussing and fuming, holding impromptu news conferences at the Ohio Clock - that's a nearly 200-year-old timepiece that counts the hours outside the Senate Chamber - or representatives stopping to chat in the beautiful Rayburn reception room outside the House with George Washington looking disapprovingly down from his portrait.

I remember many Christmas weeks spent with my colleagues covering the House and Senate instead of with my own family at my own house. More than once, my friend Cokie Roberts and I brought wrapping paper and ribbons to the Senate radio and television gallery, trying to get all our gifts wrapped and sent in time. At least there were lots of post offices open around Capitol Hill, and no lines. But no matter how irritating it was to wait around and waste time, there was a strong expectation that the waiting would end with an agreement on whatever the contentious issue was - a tax bill, a budget resolution, maybe a resolution to continue doing whatever they were doing until the details could be settled. And maybe that will happen. Maybe the cautious optimism will blossom into agreement.

But these days there is an expectation that under the beautiful white dome of the Capitol, there is a little sandbox inhabited by stubborn little kids who've been very badly brought up, never learned to share, never learned to use their words or most especially, never learned to mind their manners, their mothers or in this case, their voters, who clearly don't like what's going on. The biggest battles I recall in Congress, then as now, were over taxes, but the arguments sounded different. One of my favorite chairmen of the Senate tax-writing committee, Senator Russell Long of Louisiana - no longer with us, alas - once brought up a sticky proposition holding up a tax bill. I don't say I'm for it, he said, rocking back in his big leather chair, I don't say I'm against it. I just say who gets it? Now, that is not an expression of a philosophy; that is the basis for a decision. And it appears that as the president and the present Congress tussle over taxes, that is still what remains to be settled. How hard is that?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEUDIN' AND FIGHTIN'")

GEORGE JONES AND MELBA MONTGOMERY: (Singing) Every dern night they're a-feudin' and a-fightin', screaming and a-hollering like thunder and lightning, dadburn neighbors can't never agree, it's about to get the best of me.

Well my wife keeps a-sayin' that I outta call the cop. I keep a-layin' here a-hopin' they'll stop. And the kids are a-howlin' til they woke ours too. Why don't they hurry up and get through?

Well I should-a known better than to marry you. There's better lookin' critters in the city zoo. You come home plastered every night, and all you wanna do is fight.

Well, all I wanna do is just have a little fun, a little drink or two when my work is done. I don't know why I ever bought that ring. Well I guess I must-a been insane.

Every dern night they're a-feudin' and a-fightin', screaming and a-hollering like thunder and lightning...

WERTHEIMER: George Jones and Melba Montgomery singing "Feudin' and Fightin'." You're listening to NPR News.

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