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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In a year marked by political division, Congress is closing with one, last partisan brawl. At stake are billions of dollars in tax breaks and unemployment benefits for millions of Americans set to expire on the first of the New Year.

NPR congressional reporter Tamara Keith explores the maneuvering.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Just in case you've been out buying presents or working, or not watching C-SPAN with bated breath, here's an update on what happened yesterday. The House - specifically, Republicans in the House - rejected a bill that had broad bipartisan support in the Senate.

That bill was an interim measure. It would have extended jobless benefits and the payroll tax holiday for two months, until a year-long deal could be worked out. Republicans said two months wasn't long enough.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is a Virginia Republican.

REP. ERIC CANTOR: Families, employers and workers can't live their lives month to month. Washington needs to stop adding confusion and more uncertainty to people's lives.

KEITH: So Republicans voted to create a conference committee to hash out the differences between the House and the Senate. House Speaker John Boehner.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: This is a system that our founders gave us. It's as old as our nation, and as clear as the Constitution. Our House GOP negotiators are here and ready to work with our counterparts in the Senate, to resolve the differences as quickly as possible.

WERTHEIMER: We all learned about the conference process in high school civics. But in the current-day Congress, conference committees are quite rare. There have been just three this whole year.

KEITH: Dan Lungren, a California Republican, says he hopes they're making a comeback.

REP. DAN LUNGREN: Certainly, we had these on a more regular basis when I was here in the 1980s. It's fallen into disfavor, which I think has been a terrible thing. So frankly, my hope is that it will work.

KEITH: Lungren says he's a glass-half-full kind of guy. But the reality is, if this is going to work, someone is going to have to blink. Democrats in both the House and the Senate say they have no intention of appointing members to the committee. And a committee can't even be created without a Senate vote, which at the moment looks unlikely.

Democrats spent most of the day taking turns on the House floor, criticizing Republicans for cooking up this idea and refusing to allow members to vote in favor of the Senate bill.

REP. DAVID SCOTT: Ladies and gentlemen, what's at stake here is a failure to compromise. That is the key.

KEITH: David Scott is a Democrat from Georgia.

SCOTT: America is hurting. And what do the Republican Party in the House of Representatives want to do? They want to hurt them some more, by not even allowing a vote on a compromise bill.

KEITH: And what you have here is a political standoff. Here are Speaker Boehner, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

BOEHNER: We've done our work for the American people, and now it's up to the president, and Democrats in the Senate, to do their job as well.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Make no mistake; the fact is a clear one. If we do not have a payroll-tax cut, it's because the Republicans in the House of Representatives have chose to paint themselves in a different place than Republicans in the country, and Republicans in the United States Senate.

KEITH: This is the final standoff in a year full of brinksmanship: threats of government shutdown, of debt default, the FAA running out of money, a disaster relief fund down to near-empty.

It's no wonder congressional approval has reached an all-time low. According to a new Gallup poll, it stands at 11 percent. That's the lowest it's been since Gallup started asking the question in 1974. And yet in this fight, the parties are still angling for advantage.

Sarah Binder is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a seasoned congressional watcher.

SARAH BINDER: Both parties seem to think they actually - each of them - have the upper hand here this week. I think that's part of what's helping to explain why both parties are sort of digging their heels in here.

KEITH: And then there's President Obama, who has made the payroll tax cut his chief priority of the last few months. The House vote gave him yet another opportunity to stand in front of his favorite prop of late: a countdown clock.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The clock is ticking. Time is running out, and if the House Republicans refuse to vote for the Senate bill or even allow it to come up for a vote, taxes will go up in 11 days.

KEITH: So now the question is: Who blinks first? And if no one does, who gets the blame?

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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