They may not be home for holidays

Weary lawmakers and congressional staffers are making backup vacation plans, preparing to work over the holidays. 

Congress has a habit of finishing up late in December, such as when the Senate passed healthcare reform on Christmas Eve in 2009.

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But this year is different, as many on Capitol Hill believe that Congress will still be working on a debt deal between Christmas and New Year’s. 

A Republican leadership aide said, “Some version of: ‘Have you bought your plane ticket yet?’ or ‘Think you’ll spend the holidays here?’ is the new guaranteed way to start up conversation in this town.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made it official earlier this month when he announced that the lower chamber would remain in session until a deal is struck. 

While that might appease nervous investors on Wall Street, Capitol Hill staffers are left to guess when they might be able to head home for the holidays.

Members have far more flexibility on plane reservations than do their aides. For example, lawmakers can schedule multiple flights and only pay for one. 

In a closed-door meeting recently, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) warned GOP lawmakers to prepare to be in Washington “through Christmas.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday said he doubts a deal can pass Congress by Dec. 25.  

President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are scheduled to spend the holidays with their families in Hawaii, but those plans would change if a deal is not struck.

Meanwhile, some staffers are wrestling with what they should convey to their parents.

“I have flights booked, but haven’t been able to muster the courage to tell my mother about the implications of the fiscal cliff on the family holiday plans,” another leadership official said.  

Domestic airfare prices hit an all-time high this year, and airlines are being more stringent with cashing in points, so purchasing a last-minute ticket can be tricky — especially for those who live on the West Coast. 

A Democratic leadership aide based on the West Coast said, “I can say, thank God for Southwest! Refundable fares are a lifesaver.” 

But those who don’t fly Southwest or can’t afford to purchase the pricey refundable fares had to bite the bullet and buy a ticket. 

A House GOP staffer revealed that she “finally bought our plane tickets to fly out on Christmas Eve, which will be brutal, and return the 27th, though I’m bracing myself to come back here earlier, perhaps. ” 

She added that that her strategy is to “prepare all families for the worst and hope for the best!”

 One GOP lawmaker told The Hill that he has “no clue” what the schedule will look like next week and the week after.

“I plan to be home Christmas Eve. I have a flight reserved for Dec. 23. Although my plan may fail if we are inches from a deal and need the 24th to pass it. Otherwise, I expect we will break a couple days for Christmas and return. But no one knows for sure,” the Midwest-based lawmaker said. 

The matter isn’t quite so tough for local-based lawmakers, including outgoing Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), whose family lives in Northern Virginia. 

“I went to the … hardware parking lot and paid, like, $100 per foot for a tree and I hope we stay in session till Easter so I can get my money’s worth,” the lawmaker said with a smile.