Washington, DC — Senators bid hasty goodbyes to families, donned ties and pantsuits in lieu of sweat pants and Christmas sweaters and one by one returned to the Capitol on Thursday to begin the business of doing nothing in particular.
But for once, those lawmakers were fully united, if only around their sadness and frustration at being stuck in Washington in a holiday week, peering over the edge of the fiscal abyss.
“This is no way to run things,” complained Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who checked off the various backyard sports he longed to be playing with his children: football, soccer and some golf.
Members of the Senate trudged back to the Capitol ostensibly to work out a deal with the White House to avoid large tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in just a few days. With the possibility of New Year’s Eve floor festivities looming, Congress could find itself voting on the final day of the year for the first time in more than four decades.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, was eager to demonstrate that the Senate was ready to move on any idea presented by the White House or the House even as things seemed to be careening toward failure on Thursday.
“Members of the House of Representatives are out watching movies and watching their kids play soccer and basketball and doing all kinds of things,” said Mr. Reid, in a ferocious floor attack on the House that he returned to periodically throughout the day Thursday, like an angry father-in-law revisiting a grudge he’s been nursing all year. “They should be here.”
Not to be outdone, Speaker John A. Boehner, who failed last week to cobble together enough votes for his own bill, ordered House members to return on Sunday. Saying it was the Senate’s turn to come up with an idea, he told fellow Republicans on a conference call, “The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass, but the Senate must act.”
Absent a solution — or even a pathway to a bill — senators whiled away the hours without any agreement, debating and voting on amendments to a surveillance measure, pondering hurricane aid, and swearing in a new senator from Hawaii. Retiring senators, who had anticipated that their services would no longer be needed, worked in offices in varying states of disassembly, their staffs pecking out e-mails on iPads because their computers had been carted away.
A meeting at the White House between President Obama and Congressional leaders scheduled for Friday offered either the promise that a resolution of the fiscal debacle was in view or a portentous sign that each side was doing all it could to make sure that it could escape blame for a potential fiscal meltdown. No one was quite sure which.
Amid the absurdity of an urgent, nonurgent holiday session, there was the odd hum of normalcy. Senators fulminated about espionage for hours on the Senate floor as they debated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Congressional aides wore their workday best as they sped through hallways, clutching their phones. Taco Thursday continued as it does each week in the small carryout restaurant where staff members collect lunches to be eaten at desks. Mr. Paul, as per usual, tussled with the leadership over one of his amendments.
Mostly, people just looked mad. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, his tie slightly askew, looked as gloomy as the clouds hovering over the Capitol dome. “I didn’t realize how much I didn’t want to be here until I got here,” said Mr. Schumer, who had taken the red eye from San Francisco, where he had arrived only days earlier to visit his daughter.
A single senator was seen smiling: Brian Schatz, who was appointed on Wednesday by the governor of Hawaii to fill the term of the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye, held the arm of his fellow Hawaii Democrat, Senator Daniel K. Akaka, as he walked across the Senate floor to meet Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who administered the oath to the new senator. His duties complete, Mr. Biden was immediately descended upon by reporters eager for a morsel of news; he did not oblige.
The Congressional impasse over how to avoid tax increases and spending cuts has left this entire city gripping Starbucks cups procured from Georgetown to Capitol Hill, bearing the message “come together,” to wait in low-grade misery for the next chapter in the drama. This would be Sunday night, when House members arrive, just ahead of New Year’s Eve at the summons of their leaders, who decided Thursday that they could not afford to be home killing time while Senate Democratic leaders took to C-Span to take shots at the absent House.
As the nation awaited news — any news! — about what would happen to the nation’s fiscal health, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the sex therapist, volunteered on Twitter that lawmakers who could not compromise “probably aren’t good lovers.” That was around midday.
Many retiring senators’ offices looked empty and gloomy, and boxes full of years of archives piled up around the Hart Senate Office Building. The office of Mr. Inouye was jam-packed with floral arrangements, and smelled of lilies and chai tea. On the door of the office of retiring Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, was a sign imploring visitors to rap with a coin or key “so the sound will carry,” and retiring Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska’s, office was absent even his name plate; a flag for his home state lingered.
The House and Senate have held numerous pro forma sessions during the week between Christmas and New Year over the years, and in 1995 during a major budget battle. But the last time they held roll call votes that week, before Thursday, was during the second session of the 91st Congress, in 1970, amid a large spending fight and a filibuster over financing for a supersonic transport plane.
Not everyone decided to make the trip Thursday. About 10 senators missed a series of votes, including Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, and Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, who has retired.