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House Republicans’ risky political bet on the payroll tax

at 02:30 PM ET, 12/19/2011

Just when one of the least popular Congresses in modern memory seemed to have cut a deal to extend the payroll tax cut and end a session that almost everyone would like to forget, House Republicans decided to stay a little bit longer.

“I expect the House will disagree with the Senate amendment,” House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) told reporters this morning, 10 words that virtually ensure that later today the lower chamber will reject the deal that passed the Senate with 89 votes less than 72 hours ago.


WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 19: Speaker of the House U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) answers reporters' questions during a brief news conference on the payroll tax vote outside his office at the U.S. Capitol December 19, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In so doing, House Republicans are making a major political gamble on a very popular piece of legislation, essentially risking the failure of the payroll tax extension by pushing the ball — figuratively speaking — back over to the Senate.

(For what it’s worth, the Democratic Senate leadership seems willing to call House GOPers bluff; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) said Monday no further discussions will occur until the House passes the two-month extension agreed to by the Senate.)

Listen closely to Boehner’s rhetoric this morning and it’s clear what Republicans are up to: making the case that a two-month extension is nothing more than passing the buck or, in Boehner’s words, kick the can down the road. (Does anyone actually kick a can down the road anymore? Wethinks not.)

“Why do we always have to go to the lowest common denominator?” Boehner asked. “It’s time to stop the nonsense,” he asserted.

What Boehner and House Republicans are hoping is to tap into the widespread disgust the public feels with Congress by suggesting that a two-month extension of the payroll tax amounts to yet another example of how Washington doesn’t really work.

“A mere two month extension of the doc fix and payroll tax is a terribly irresponsible way to govern and a perfect symbol of a dysfunctional Senate run by Harry Reid,” said one senior House Republican leadership aide, summing up the messaging House GOPers will likely use in the next few days.

Of course, there are other underlying reasons for the House to say “no”.

First of all, there remains considerable consternation within portions of the Republican conference about passing a temporary extension. And while Boehner could pass the Senate deal with Democratic votes, that’s not exactly a recipe to keep good feelings toward him within the Republican conference.

Second, House GOP leaders don’t relish the prospect of (another) fight over the payroll tax extension during an election year.

Asked why his party would pursue such a potentially risky strategy on the payroll tax cut, one senior Republican consultant said only: “Other than they don’t want to go through this again in a few months, I’m not sure.”

What House Republicans are doing amounts to a political high wire act without a net. In a recent Associated Press-GfK national poll, nearly six in ten Americans said they wanted the payroll tax cut extended including 54 percent of self-described conservative Republicans.

“As sloppy as things look so far, House Republicans believe their arguments about job creation will win out over Democratic talking points on process and Reid’s refusal to even negotiate,” said Eric Ueland, former chief of staff to then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Owning that failure, however, could be a devastating blow for a party who is still adjusting to its new majority in the House — and hoping to take control of the Senate and the White House next November.

Already, the public seems inclined to blame Republicans for the lack of major accomplishments by this Congress. In a recent Pew poll, 50 percent of people said this Congress has accomplished less than previous ones; of that group 40 percent said Republican leaders were more to blame while 23 percent blamed Democratic leaders more.

Numbers like that suggest that failure to pass a payroll tax extension would fall more heavily on Republicans than Democrats.

And, Democrats are already working to cast that blame. “Their intransigence will mean that in 10 days, 160 million middle class Americans will see a tax increase,” said Reid in a statement released after Boehner’s press conference.

The game of political chicken is, once again, on. The question is whether House Republicans will press the pedal to the metal even as their Senate colleagues seem willing to turn the wheel to avoid a collision.

 
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