01/05/2012 03:11 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2012

White House, Democrats: If Congress Isn't In Recess, Why Isn't It Working?

WASHINGTON -- With Republicans complaining that President Obama made recess appointments while Congress is not in recess, House Democrats Thursday suggested that if Congress really is in session, perhaps members should be working.

"We're here, we're going back to work, we'll be in session for as long as it takes," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), announcing that her members would start working to prepare for a joint House-Senate conference committee on extending payroll tax cuts for the rest of the year.

"But we also would like to have our colleagues come back, have a real session," Pelosi added. "They have the appearance of a session so it blocks what the president can do, but not a productive session to get the job done for the American people."

Congress began holding "pro forma" sessions before the last Memorial Day weekend after a group of Republican legislators said they wanted to prevent Obama from making recess appointments -- especially for Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, before she launched a campaign for Senate in Massachusetts.

They were able to do that by convincing House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to refuse to grant a "concurrent resolution" allowing the Senate to take time off. Such resolutions are required under the Constitution to adjourn.

Ever since, both chambers have gaveled themselves in and out for a few seconds at least every fourth day, to maintain a technical session, even if when nothing was being done.

Democrats last year did not want to challenge the practice by showing up for work. But ever since the pre-Christmas payroll tax battle, they've settled on coming into work as a key strategy, and they hailed Obama for putting Richard Cordray in charge of the CFPB and naming three people to the National Labor Relations Board, in spite of the phony working sessions.

"Fortunately, or unfortunately for us, we do not have a role in the confirmation process, but we're glad that the President took the lead, went out there, was bold and made the appointments," Pelosi said, although Boehner had carved out a defacto confirmation role by blocking Senate recesses.

"We can't wait. We have work to do. We're going to work right now," Pelosi said at the Thursday Capitol Hill news conference, designed to start putting pressure on the GOP before the current two-month 2 percent payroll tax cut expires.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney took a similar tone in his daily briefing, noting that the Senate hasn't done any actual work since before Christmas, and that the members are not in town.

"I think all of you should run up to Capitol Hill, check out the House and Senate, and see if you can find a single member of Congress; and then tell me, on this working day for most Americans, whether or not Congress is in session," Carney said.

"You might find them in very warm places or snowy places having fundraisers, but you won't find them in Capitol Hill because they are in recess."

"Only in Washington would not being in the office, not even being in the town where your office exists qualify as being on the job," he added. "If Congress is in session, they're supposed to be, you know, somewhere, like, close to the Capitol."

Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), countered that the Senate used a pro forma session on Dec. 23 to pass that temporary payroll tax cut extension. Stewart also noted that Democratic senators have not claimed to be in recess.

Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.