House and Senate Republicans Spar Over Payroll Tax Cuts

Senate Republicans up for re-election next fall lashed out at their counterparts in the House on Monday after Speaker John Boehner indicated he didn’t have the votes to approve a two-month extension of payroll tax cuts enacted at the beginning of this year.

The $33 billion legislation, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support on an 89-10 Senate vote on Saturday, would prevent taxes from rising on 160 million Americans on January 1, and also includes money for unemployment compensation and a “doc fix,” the legislation passed annually to raise reimbursement rates for doctors participating in Medicare. On Sunday, Boehner made clear that his caucus — which dragged the U.S. to the brink of default this past summer during the debt-ceiling crisis — did not approve.

“The House Republicans’ plan to scuttle the deal to help middle-class families is irresponsible and wrong,” Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown said in a statement Monday. “The refusal to compromise now threatens to increase taxes on hard-working Americans and stop unemployment benefits for those out of work.”

The sharp language from a moderate locked in a tough re-election fight with consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren demonstrates the dangerous political territory Republicans find themselves wading through, opposing tax cuts despite a party brand almost entirely built around supporting them. Indeed, President Obama’s approval numbers have improved markedly as the payroll tax cut fight has risen to the top of the national agenda.

“There is no reason to hold up the short-term extension while a more comprehensive deal is being worked out,” argued Nevada Senator Dean Heller, who was appointed after John Ensign resigned and is now seeking a full term next November in a state Barack Obama won by double digits in 2008. “What is playing out in Washington, D.C., this week is about political leverage, not about what’s good for the American people.”

As during the debt ceiling fight, Republicans have calculated they can extract concessions from the president before giving way. Proponents of the Senate bill assume Obama will sign off on language fast-tracking the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, while House Republicans claim to object in principle to short-term spending deals.

“Although this bill has a number of significant flaws, on balance, it is worthy of support,” Pat Toomey, a freshman Republican from Pennsylvania, said of the Senate bill. “The Keystone XL provision, in particular, considerably increases the probability that we will create tens of thousands of American jobs, increase our access to oil from our friend and neighbor Canada, and diminish our dependence on more distant and less secure sources of energy.”

The support of conservatives like Toomey suggests Republican leadership had hoped the Keystone XL provision would be enough of a sweetener for rank-and-file members to support the legislation. But Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader who helped push the compromise measure through over the weekend, is now backing House Speaker John Boehner in his call for a year-long extension of the tax cuts, indicating Boehner is facing revolt in the ranks and has asked McConnell to help present a unified front.

“The House and Senate have both passed bipartisan bills to require the President to finally make a decision on the Keystone XL jobs, and to extend additional unemployment insurance, the temporary payroll tax cut and seniors’ access to medical care,” reads a statement from Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman.

Democratic Senate leaders suspect they have a winner politically here, though, and have adjourned for the session, daring the House to reject their bill and allow the tax hike — averaging about $1,000 over the course of a year — to kick in.

“Instead of threatening middle-class families with a thousand-dollar tax hike, Speaker Boehner should bring up the bipartisan compromise that Senator McConnell and I negotiated, and which passed the Senate with an overwhelming majority of Democratic and Republican votes,” said Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Plans for a House vote on the Senate legislation were scuttled late Monday in favor of an attempt to resolve the two chambers’ differences in a conference committee. Democrats saw it as a cynical attempt to avoid a painful and ideologically resonant vote against a tax cut by Republican members of Congress.

“House Republicans claim to support this middle-class tax cut, but they are really trying to bury it in a committee,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York. “Speaker Boehner is using one of the oldest tricks in Washington of claiming to support something and then sending it to a legislative graveyard where it never sees the light of day.”

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