Everyone in Congress wants to extend the current payroll tax cut, which affects 160 million Americans. But the issue over how long to extend the cut--and how to fund it--has set the stage for a last major political battle in Washington for 2011.
Republicans are now arguing that Senate-passed legislation to extend the cut for two months beyond its scheduled expiration on Dec. 31 is insufficient, and simply "kicks the can down the road," in the words of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). And to express their disapproval formally, House Republicans elected to bypass a vote Tuesday on the Senate's plan, calling instead for the House and Senate to form conference committees to reconcile the chambers' dueling versions.
But is this fight worth it for the Republican party?
"I'm honestly speechless about the whole thing," Republican consultant Matt Mackowiack wrote in an email to Yahoo News Tuesday.
"I think that many people agree with [political observers] the politics are extremely dangerous," Ron Bonjean, Republican strategist and former House advisor, told Yahoo News.
Republicans in the House are taking a major risk by blocking legislation that has already received bipartisan approval in the Senate--something Democrats have been noting at length as the standoff continues.
"Republicans in the Senate voted for this--39 of them did," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on the House floor Tuesday, referencing Saturday's 89-10 vote in favor of the Senate legislation. "Ninety percent of the Senate voted for this in a bipartisan way... they're afraid it will pass," she said of Republican House leaders. The notion that "Republicans are afraid the bill will pass," became a widespread talking point among Washington Democrats this week.
"Stop playing politics with peoples' lives," Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said Tuesday.
President Obama made a surprise appearance Tuesday to hammer that message home during White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's press briefing.
"We have more important things to worry about than politics right now," "saving face," or "figuring out internal caucus politics," the president said. "People are counting on us to make their lives just a little bit easier... We owe it to them to come together right now and do the right thing."
Republicans, meanwhile, are arguing that Democrats and the White House are doing the bare minimum by settling for a two-month extension.
"We believe all Americans deserve certainty," Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said on the House floor Tuesday. "...The president himself said it would be 'inexcusable' not to extend the payroll tax cut for a year."
With the Senate in recess, Republican House members are able to contrast their work in Washington with the record of their Senate Democratic counterparts, who have already left town for the holidays.
"You have said many times that Congress must do its work before taking vacation," Boehner wrote in a letter Tuesday to the president asking him to call on the Senate to produce a year-long deal.
Republicans are also making the case that the two-month extension is potentially dangerous.
Republican members are using an ABC News story published Monday to bolster that argument. "Officials from the policy-neutral National Payroll Reporting Consortium, Inc. have expressed concern to members of Congress that the two-month payroll tax holiday passed by the Senate and supported by President Obama cannot be implemented properly," ABC News White house correspondent Jake Tapper wrote.
So how does this end?
If both chambers of Congress convene a conference and hammer out a compromise, then Republicans can claim a big victory--and proceed to make the argument on the campaign trail that the GOP pressed for long-term results in the quest to secure greater economic certainty for Americans.
But Democrats in the Senate on Tuesday signaled they would not bend to the House Republicans' demands and have no plans to take part in a cross-chamber conference on the bill.
And if a conference does not come to pass, several scenarios might emerge. Republicans could wait on the conference, let the tax cuts expire and blame Democrats for deciding not to hold a conference and remain on vacation. Or GOP lawmakers could wait on the conference, let the tax cuts expire and field flak from Democrats for creating gridlock. Alternatively, Republicans could elect not to let the cuts expire and vote on the Senate-passed version in the 11th hour--an outcome that Bonjean called a "remote" and "very unlikely."
Meanwhile, Democrats' resistance to the conference plan demonstrates that they believe they have the upper hand and this will work out in their party's (as well as the president's) favor.
"Boehner needs to get his House and Tea Party in order or the Republicans will feel the wrath of the middle class at the ballot box," Democratic strategist Jill Alper cautioned in an email to Yahoo News. "This debate will no doubt buoy the President's standing and the Democratic party."
The White House estimates that if the cut expires Dec. 31, middle-class American families will pay an average of $1,000 more in taxes in 2012.
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