Payroll tax fight: What McConnell left unsaid is key

December 22, 2011

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) (Reuters/Jason Reed)

But the next step in the battle hinges not on what McConnell said, but what he left unspoken.

In his statement, issued shortly after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other House GOP leaders urged Democrats to negotiate on a long-term payroll tax extension, McConnell made two specific requests.

He called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to appoint members to serve on a bipartisan, bicameral committee to negotiate a long-term payroll tax deal.

And he urged the House to pass “an extension that locks in the thousands of Keystone XL pipeline jobs, prevents any disruption in the payroll tax holiday or other expiring provisions, and allows Congress to work on a solution for the longer extensions.”

Unmentioned in that second request: whether McConnell believes the House should approve the Senate-passed, two-month extension or simply any extension that includes the Keystone oil pipeline provision that Republicans secured in the Senate’s deal.

That distinction is key.

By not specifically calling on the House to pass the Senate extension, McConnell is giving Boehner and House GOP leaders – who still face great resistance to a short-term deal from their rank-and-file members – some room to recalibrate their demands.

Republican leaders reiterated Thursday morning that they believe both sides came “very close” to agreement on a one-year deal in the McConnell-Reid negotiations. But Democratic lawmakers say that’s not the case – and, regardless, the longer House GOP leaders continue to insist on a one-year compromise, the closer Dec. 31 approaches, narrowing the window for forging an agreement.

So, McConnell’s statement means House Republicans now have several options. They could push for a slightly longer-term deal, such as a three-month extension. They could urge members to take the two-month plan so long as Reid taps appointees to a conference committee and pledges to achieve a one-year deal. Or they could take a different route.

Those options, it’s worth noting, aren’t up to GOP leaders alone, of course. And with President Obama scheduled to speak at 1 p.m. from the White House, the calculus could change – and quickly.

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