The Washington Post

House passes GOP payroll tax package amid White House veto threat

(Joshua Roberts/BLOOMBERG)

The House on Tuesday passed a bill combining an extension of the payroll tax cut with several GOP-favored provisions. It includes language to speed a decision on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, setting up a showdown with the White House, which has threatened to veto the measure.

The measure passed late Tuesday on a 234-to-193 vote. Ten Democrats joined 224 Republicans in backing the measure, while 14 Republicans and 179 Democrats voted “no.”

In floor remarks after Tuesday’s House vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the GOP package “a pointless, partisan exercise” and said that Democrats had been “ready to vote tonight” on the package but that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he needed more time.

“I can’t set the vote without his approval,” Reid said of McConnell, adding that he planned to speak with the Republican leader in the morning “to determine how soon we can hold this vote, an exercise in futility.”

The White House issued a statement urging Congress to “do its job and stop the tax hike that’s scheduled to affect 160 million Americans in 18 days.”

“This is not a time for Washington Republicans to score political points against the President,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “It’s not a time to refight old ideological battles. ... It is our expectation that in the eleventh hour, Congressional Republicans and Democrats will come to an agreement to protect the middle class and finish their budget work for the year.”

Meanwhile, at a news conference Tuesday night, House Republican leaders unveiled their own version of a countdown clock modeled on one used by the White House to urge Congress to act on the payroll tax cut.

“Well, now I think the White House needs to update their clock, because it’s now time for the Senate to act,” Boehner said, speaking at a podium in front of a TV screen that displayed a clock that urges the Senate, not Congress, to act.

“The American people are asking, ‘Where are the jobs?,’” Boehner said. “The House is listening, and we’ve passed a large bill that contains many of the priorities of our caucus and the White House.”

The House Republican plan would extend for one year the reduction from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent in payroll taxes for employees; it also would renew the “doc fix,” which prevents cuts in reimbursements to doctors who see Medicare patients, and would extend unemployment insurance, while gradually reducing the maximum length of time for benefits from 99 to 59 weeks.

If Congress doesn’t act to extend them, the payroll tax cut, doc fix and unemployment insurance are set to expire at the end of the year.

Amid opposition from some Republican rank-and-file members, however, GOP leaders crafted a package that would pair those extensions with some measures favored by conservatives, including speeding up a decision on the Keystone pipeline, authorizing the government to conduct spectrum auctions and delaying regulations governing industrial boiler emissions.

The GOP package also would require individuals who have not completed high school to enroll in a GED program in order to receive jobless benefits, and would give states the authority to make drug testing a requirement for applicants.

Republicans argued during Tuesday’s floor debate that the pipeline project would lead to the “immediate” creation of tens of thousands of jobs. Democrats have argued that that claim is inflated, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said earlier Tuesday that the Keystone pipeline provision “does have Democratic support, but not in this bill.”

“This is 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,” Hoyer said at his weekly pen-and-pad briefing. “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.”

The White House said in its veto threat that the GOP measure was a political move that “breaks the bipartisan agreement on spending cuts that was reached just a few months ago.”

Reid told reporters Tuesday afternoon that Senate Democrats discussed “a number of alternatives” to a surtax on millionaires, Democrats’ preferred method of paying for the payroll tax cut extension. He added that Democrats still back some way of requiring “shared sacrifice” from the wealthy.

“One of the things we certainly believe, as does almost 80 percent of the American people, (is) that there should be a contribution, ever be it so slight, by the wealthiest of the wealthy,” Reid said.

The payroll tax debate comes as Congress faces an even higher-stakes argument over keeping the government funded through late next year. The measure currently keeping the government running expires on Friday, and leaders of both parties have begun accusing each other of using the funding bill as a bargaining chip in the negotiations over the payroll tax.

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