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.
"What is playing out in Washington, D.C., this week is about political leverage, not about what's good for the American people. Congress can work out a solution without stopping the payroll tax cut extension," said GOP Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada.
There are many other legitimate issues that need to be thoroughly debated over the payroll tax cut. The White House and the Democrats maintain that it will create jobs, but there is little if any evidence to support that idea.
The payroll tax cut didn't reduce unemployment to any great degree this year, as the anemic monthly job figures clearly showed, nor will it significantly boost employment next year, according to most government and business economic forecasts.
It does leave more money in the paychecks of working Americans, which boosts consumer spending. But it doesn't deal with weakened capital investment, suffocating deficits and debt, excessive taxation, job-killing regulation, and the administration's failure to expand trading markets for U.S. goods and services.
That's what the tea party House members complained about when they revolted against Reid's ultimatum at a party caucus this week. They were elected last year, they said, because voters were sick and tired of business as usual, of stop-gap legislation that offered no solutions to the nation's economic decline.
All of this gets lost in the fog of political debate and the charges and countercharges, not to mention the shallow, biased reporting on the nightly news.
The past year on Capitol Hill has been one legislative debacle after another. The debt-ceiling battle pushed the country to the brink of defaulting on its debts. Then the so-called deficit-cutting supercommittee failed to reach any agreement and disbanded.
It's no wonder Americans are fed up with Congress and think, according to recent polls, that most of its members don't deserve to be re-elected. The Gallup Poll reported Tuesday that Congress's dismal job approval score has sunk to a new record low of 11 percent.
That's "the lowest single rating in Gallup's history of asking this question since 1974," the venerable polling organization said.
What has Barack Obama been doing during all of this confusion and combat on Capitol Hill? The man who was elected to lead the country, but who, in the words of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has been "a bystander" in the White House?
When White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked Monday about the payroll tax standoff in Congress, he said Republicans should "do the right thing" and pass the Senate's bill.
But when a reporter asked if the president had talked to Speaker Boehner in an attempt to break the impasse, Carney replied, "It's not our job to negotiate between him and Senate Republicans."
Such is the sad state of leadership in Washington these days.