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House Democrats take to the House floor after Friday's "pro forma" session

They say lawmakers should vote on the bill to extend the payroll tax cut for a full year

Republicans point out they were ready to vote on a version of that before Christmas

Washington CNN —  

House Democratic leaders went to the House floor Friday morning in an effort to embarrass House Republicans for not coming back to work right after the holidays.

Their message: Congress needs to come back early from its winter break and focus on measures to help the weak economy.

Clearly coordinating the staged floor session on day that the House was scheduled for a brief “pro forma” meeting, Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn rose to speak after members recited the Pledge of Allegiance, saying Democrats are in Washington and ready to work.

But California Republican Jeff Denham, who was assigned to preside over the procedural session, in which the House typically doesn’t handle major business, gaveled the meeting to a close after a few minutes.

Even as the official session ended, Clyburn continued to speak and, as if on cue, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and other top House Democrats filed onto the House floor from the back of the chamber. As is standard practice, the cameras and microphones were turned off, and the chamber was empty, except for about a dozen or so people in the visitors’ galleries and reporters who were tipped off that Democrats were planning something.

One after the other, Democrats spoke for another 15 minutes, saying that just like other Americans who returned to work after the holidays, it is time for Congress to do the same. They argued they should be voting on legislation to extend the payroll tax cut for a full year.

Right before Christmas, Congress passed a two-month extension of that tax cut along with some assistance for jobless Americans, with the aim of considering a full-year extension later.

“It’s unconscionable that we’re on vacation while the people of this country are out of work,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson said.

Members of the House are not scheduled to come back to Washington until January 17.

At one point, the GOP’s Denham emerged from the Republican cloakroom off the House floor to listen to the mock session.

In an apparent jab at some top Republicans who scheduled official trips out of the country during the January break, Pelosi said, “Let’s get moving. Let’s not be taking trips overseas.”

Afterward, Denham called what the Democrats did on the floor “theatrics at its worst.” He said House Republicans supported a full-year extension of the payroll tax cut, but Democrats refused to negotiate on one before the Christmas holidays, insisting instead on the short-term extension.

Denham said that although Congress isn’t scheduled to come back until mid-January, members are working at home on efforts to create jobs.

House Speaker John Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, noted that House Republicans supported a one-year extension of the payroll tax cut in their own bill that passed the House, and Boehner had appointed Republicans to negotiate a bill with the Senate.

Steel added, “If House Democrats really want to help the American people, they should urge their Senate colleagues to take up and pass the 27 House-passed bipartisan jobs bills awaiting action.”

Knowing that television cameras didn’t capture their antics on the floor, the Democrats scheduled a news conference to repeat their call for Congress to come back to Washington.

After Republicans sharply criticized President Obama earlier this week for appointing Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when Congress was not in town, and maintained Congress was technically not in recess to permit that move, Democrats turned the argument back on them.

“Either we’re in or we’re out of session,” California Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra said, and then quipped, “As Ricky Ricardo used to tell Lucille Ball, I think our Republican colleagues have some ‘splainin’ to do because this is not the way you run government.”

With Friday’s move to make a political point, Democrats may have taken a page from House Republican playbook. In 2008, then in the minority, the GOP staged a similar protest when Pelosi was speaker and scheduled a month-long summer recess when gas prices reached record levels. Republicans took to the floor and held daily press conferences saying Congress should be in town working on energy legislation.

But Pelosi dismissed the comparison to that effort by House Republicans, arguing that this is a different time and Americans struggling in a weak economy are “losing patience with Congress.”