Pressure mounts on House GOP over payroll tax measure

December 21, 2011

Pressure mounted Wednesday on House Republicans to approve a Senate-passed measure that would temporarily extend a payroll tax holiday, as several GOP senators joined a chorus of criticism from across the political spectrum and President Obama appealed for a House vote on the extension.

For their part, House Republican leaders also sought Wednesday to ratchet up pressure on Democrats in the payroll tax debate, but the GOP appeared to be taking most of the heat, including from some influential voices on the right.

The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board Wednesday morning issued a withering critique of congressional Republicans’ handling of the tax fight, saying that they “have thoroughly botched the politics” of the issue and have “achieved the small miracle of letting Mr. Obama position himself as an election-year tax cutter.” The editorial argued that at this point, “Republicans would do best to cut their losses and find a way to extend the payroll holiday quickly.”

Democrats seized on the editorial. “When the Wall Street Journal says they botched this badly, I think you can pretty well say that they botched it badly,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also weighed in via Twitter on the side of the Journal, calling the editorial “right on the mark.”

McCain is among several Senate Republicans, including Scott Brown (Mass.) and Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), who in recent days have called for the House to approve the bipartisan two-month deal that passed the Senate rather than continue to call for a one-year extension before the holidays.

In an interview Wednesday on CNBC, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said there was “no question” that Republicans are “getting killed now in public opinion” over the extension. He said he agreed with the Journal editorial and urged House Republicans to extend the payroll tax cut so they can “just get this behind us and move on.”

Obama called House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday to urge him again to allow a vote on the Senate-passed measure, which would also extend unemployment benefits and avert a cut in the reimbursement rate for doctors who treat Medicare patients. Failure to renew the payroll tax holiday would hit roughly 160 million Americans in their pocketbooks next year, costing the average worker about $1,000.

Obama emphasized that Senate Republicans and Democrats had joined to pass the bipartisan measure, and he said House Republicans should drop their resistance to it and pass it as well, giving the two sides time to work out a full-year extension that the House GOP lawmakers have demanded, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Carney said Obama also called Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to commend him for working with Senate Republicans on the compromise.

“The bipartisan compromise exists,” Carney said. “We have to get this two-month extension done, or else taxes will go up on the American people. The House has the ability to call up the Senate legislation, pass it and move on, and taxes will not go up.” He added that “the ball is in the House’s court” and that there is “an avenue out of this blind alley . . . that they have driven themselves into.”

Asked what Obama was offering Boehner in return for a House vote on the Senate bill, Carney said, “There is no political quid pro quo here.” He reiterated Obama’s comment Tuesday that, contrary to one House Republican’s characterization, “this is not a game of high-stakes poker.”

Earlier, Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), joined by eight Republican House members selected for a House-Senate conference committee, held a 10-minute photo-op in which they urged Democrats to appoint members to the bicameral committee that would try to forge a one-year payroll tax deal.

“We’re here,” Boehner told several dozen reporters and photographers as he and the other House Republicans sat at a long wooden table across from 10 empty chairs. “We’re ready to go to work. And we’re hoping that Senate Democrats will appoint negotiators, come to the table and resolve our differences.”

Boehner dismissed the Wall Street Journal editorial, stressing that the Republican Party is “the party of lower taxes for the American people.”

“We have fought for lower taxes for the 21 years that I’ve been in this Congress; we’re going to continue to be the party of lower taxes,” he said. “And the fact is that we can resolve these differences between the two parties and give the two parties a real Christmas present.”

As House Republicans called on the Senate to come back into session, Reid returned fire, urging Boehner in a letter Wednesday morning to call back the full House. The chamber adjourned Tuesday after rejecting the Senate-passed deal.

“Once the House of Representatives acts on this immediate extension, we will be able to sit down and complete negotiations on a longer extension,” Reid wrote. “But because we have a responsibility to assure middle-class families that their taxes will not go up while we work out our differences, we must pass this immediate extension first.”

House Democrats, meanwhile, renewed their own public-relations fight, continuing to press for approval of the Senate-passed measure.

Hoyer, the House Democratic whip, moved to introduce the Senate measure in the House, but he was blocked by Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who was presiding over the chamber at the time.

At a news conference with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Hoyer called the Republican push to convene a conference committee “a device, a gimmick, a political charade.”

“They may be somewhere in the Capitol, but they’re not on the floor of the House of Representatives, where the people’s House transacts its business,” Van Hollen said of the GOP leaders. “So, we’ll be here every day, waiting for them to come to the floor of the House to actually pick up this legislation so we can get it done.”

On the campaign trail for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney blasted Obama over the impasse Wednesday, while former House speaker Newt Gingrich assailed both the president and Reid.

In Keene, N.H., Romney accused Obama of failing to assert leadership to help congressional leaders in both parties find common ground.

“My own view is had I been president, I would’ve been working with the leaders in both parties to see if there’s not a way to reach common ground,” Romney told reporters. “This should have been dealt with some time ago. As you know, I happen to support the idea of extending the payroll tax holiday. I don’t think this is going to change the economy, but it’s certainly going to help a lot of people in tough times.”

Romney would not say whether he supports Boehner’s decision to reject the compromise deal reached in the Senate. Nor would he say whether he supports an extension of two months or six months or one year.

“I’m not going to get into the back and forth on the congressional sausage-making process,” Romney said. “I hope they’re able to sit down and work out a solution that works for the American people.”

Asked how he would have handled the deal differently than Obama, Romney said: “I would’ve met with the leaders. I would’ve brought them to the White House, and if they didn’t want to come to the White House, I would’ve gone to their offices. I would have sat down. Leaders are involved in the process as opposed to just standing back and just criticizing the people who are in the process. . . . The president should have been working with his leaders in his own party, and he should’ve been reaching across the aisle and find among Republicans those who he thinks could’ve come to common position with the Democrats.”

Campaigning in Des Moines, Iowa, Gingrich charged that Obama is a “campaigner in chief who has no interest in trying to solve America’s problems,” the National Journal reported. But the former Georgia congressman reserved his harshest rhetoric for Reid, accusing the Senate Democratic leader of “deliberately game-playing” and “total dereliction of duty.”

Gingrich added: “The Senate passes what it wants and it leaves town — doesn’t wait around, it doesn’t act responsibly. I just think if you’re a normal American, you’re looking at this stuff, you just say, ‘What a total failure of leadership.’ ” He said he had “no idea how I would try to handle it if I was in John Boehner’s position because he’s got a Senate majority leader who is totally destructive. . . .”

As the two sides traded barbs, members of the House were mostly gone, and Senate Democrats have vowed not to return. Obama was home at the White House hoping for some kind of agreement between the two that he can sign, while his family was vacationing in Hawaii.

That was the uneasy state of play after a year of acrimony and stalemate came to a head on Capitol Hill, leaving millions of American workers facing a tax increase in two weeks.

The House voted 229 to 193 on Tuesday to reject the Senate compromise. No House Democrats sided with the majority Republicans.

At its heart, the fight over the tax cut is only the latest incarnation of the same ideological clash that has afflicted Congress for the past year, over what the government should fund and how it should be paid for.

Once again, Democrats and Republicans deadlocked over whether to fund an initiative by cutting entitlements and other spending or by raising taxes on the wealthy.

It was the same argument that foiled the deficit-reduction “supercommittee” this fall and fed the summer’s contentious debate over raising the federal debt ceiling.

“It’s like deja vu all over again. It’s like ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.).

After Tuesday’s vote, Democrats held to their position that the Senate deal already represented a bipartisan compromise — crafted by the chamber’s two top leaders and adopted on an 89-to-10 vote — and that there was no reason for the Senate to reopen negotiations.

Following a pattern that developed as they lurched from one crisis to another all year, each side appeared to believe that the pressure of an impending deadline and angry public reaction would force the other to capitulate.

Obama has been lobbying for months to keep the expiring tax cut in place next year, rather than allowing the tax rate on wages to jump from 4.2 to 6.2 percent. On Tuesday the White House said he would remain in Washington to get the issue settled — but would not say whether he still plans to join his family in Hawaii for the holiday at some point. In any case, Obama did not seem to be in any mood to negotiate.

White House advisers believe Obama has gained political ground during the weeks of fighting with Republicans over his jobs package and the payroll tax cut.

The president has tried to position himself as a champion of the middle class, and two new polls this week show his approval ratings rising to the upper 40s, their highest level since the summer. Conversely, the public’s opinion of Congress has continued to fall.

Late Tuesday, the White House launched a new public pressure campaign — asking people to weigh in on Twitter and Facebook about what $40, the average savings per paycheck from the tax cut, means to them.

Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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