WASHINGTON -- Once again, Congress is playing high-stakes poker with a precarious economy and the lives of struggling Americans who live paycheck to paycheck. That is, if they're lucky enough to have a job.
Unable to reach a compromise on extending the tax cut for another year, the Senate kicked the can down the road, passed a 60-day extension, sent it to the House, locked its doors and then sent its members home for the Christmas holiday.
In a mean-spirited, take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to the "people's House," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made it clear that he didn't care what the House did with the bill -- the Senate was finished for the year.
That's not usually the way Congress has operated over its 222 years, especially on must-pass legislation that may affect the lives of 160 million Americans.
In such cases, the Senate remains in session until the House has acted on the bill, presumably rewriting its terms and provisions. Then each chamber appoints members to a conference committee to iron out their differences and craft a compromise that can pass both houses.
But Reid wasn't in the least bit interested in working out a compromise on the broader issues that the bill poses, such as how to pay for its $120 billion cost that will further deplete the Social Security trust fund, or the uncertainty raised by the short-term extension.
He wants a political issue, and he made that clear when he thumbed his nose at the House this week, saying either pass the two-month extension or be seen as raising taxes on millions of Americans at Christmastime.
"I will not reopen negotiations until the House follows through and passes this agreement," Reid flatly declared.
In other words, if the House doesn't approve the Senate measure, it can forget about any compromise on a bill to fully extend the tax holiday throughout the 2012 election year.
And the Democrats say Republicans are obstructionists.
Reid argues correctly that the two-month extension bill was a compromise with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But McConnell is on record backing House Speaker John Boehner's call for a formal House-Senate conference where both sides can resolve their differences behind closed doors.
McConnell doesn't want to have to return next year and debate the payroll tax extension all over again, and neither does Boehner and his House Republicans. But Senate Democrats, desperately looking for an issue to save a dozen vulnerable seats, relish the idea.