Do Republicans have the votes?
That’s the question in the House this morning as the chamber takes up a payroll tax package unveiled by GOP leaders last week.
The answer, according to House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), is yes.
“It’ll be a bipartisan vote, but if it has to be Republicans only, we’ll get it off the floor,” McCarthy, his party’s chief vote-counter, said Tuesday in a brief interview after a closed-door conference meeting of House Republicans.
The task facing GOP leaders is one they have faced several times this year: they must round up support for a measure to which some of their conservative rank-and-file members have voiced opposition. On Monday, one Democrat, Rep. Dan Boren (Okla.), said he plans to vote “yes” on the GOP package, and Republicans are hoping to bring some other Democrats over to their side by running ads and robocalls in their districts urging them to back the measure.
Even so, Republicans can only afford to lose the support of about two-dozen members if the measure is to pass with GOP support alone, making Tuesday’s vote a high-stakes battle ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline for Congress to pass an extension of the payroll tax cut, unemployment insurance and a host of other provisions. The GOP measure includes extensions of those items as well as provisions aimed at winning conservative support, such as a measure that would force a decision on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline within 60 days.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday that he expects the “overwhelming majority” of House Democrats will vote “no” on the measure.
“Our expectation is that if they’re going to pass this, they need 218 Republicans,” Hoyer said at his weekly pen-and-pad briefing. “We’re not going to pass their bill for them.”
Hoyer criticized the package as “a partisan bill sticking the finger in the eye of those who disagree with the non-germane policies that are included — included simply for the purposes of energizing a small political base in their party.”
“As I’ve said, the Republican Party now represents, in my view, the narrowest base of any party in the 45 years that I’ve been active in politics,” Hoyer said.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has been opposed to extending the tax cut, said Tuesday that he plans to vote against the measure but he was confident the bill would pass on the strength of votes from his fellow Republicans.
He said several members expressed continued concerns about the bill in the closed-door meeting but from the mood of the gathering, he concluded that leaders have collected the votes they need to pass the bill.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) said as he exited the meeting that he remains skeptical about breaking the long-established link between the payroll tax and Social Security trust fund — he called it “shocking” that the media has not more thoroughly explored how Social Security could be undermined over time by repeated breaks in the payroll taxes. He declined to say whether he would vote for the House bill.
The continued payroll tax dispute is threatening to derail what had been steady progress toward a bipartisan compromise on a spending bill to keep government running after Friday, when a short-term funding bill expires. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Democrats on the appropriations committee had signed off on a deal — but that the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) were refusing to allow Democratic negotiators to sign a conference report and send the bill to the floor for a vote.
He said their goal was to gain leverage over Republicans on the separate payroll tax fight. “It’s being held hostage,” Rogers said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued that the White House and Democrats “are now saying they’d rather shut down the government than allow this job-creating legislation to become law.”
“That’s what would happen if they succeed in blocking this bipartisan funding bill from coming to the floor for a vote,” McConnell said in remarks on the Senate floor, calling congressional Democrats “irresponsible” and “reckless.”
But Ryan Nickel, a spokesman for Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, denied that Democrats had shook hands on a deal, as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated Tuesday.
“Mr. Dicks has been clear: there are still some outstanding items that need to be ironed out,” Nickel said. “They aren’t deal breakers or game changers but they’re not wrapped up yet. Nothing is resolved ‘til everything is resolved.”
And a senior Senate Democratic aide accused McConnell of intransigence on the payroll tax cut issue. He said Reid approached McConnell on the Senate floor last week to discuss a compromise, and McConnell shut the conversation down, indicating Reid needed to talk to Boehner instead — replying “go talk to John.”
“That’s a strange point of view given Sen. Reid’s comments on the floor this morning about how he needs to work with the Speaker if he’s going to pass things,” a senior Republican aide responded.