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Roll Call

White House Hasn’t Found Sequel to Payroll Tax Fight

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The White House has struggled to find a sequel to its victory on the payroll tax cut but hasn’t yet settled on a single legislative priority.

Instead, there has been a scattershot approach.

At his first full press conference of the year a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama gave Congress three immediate tasks: pass the “Buffett Rule” requiring millionaires to pay at least as high a tax rate as the middle class, pass a bill shifting tax breaks away from companies that send jobs overseas to companies that bring them home, and pass a mortgage refinancing bill.

None of them are headed to his desk, and the White House almost immediately switched to other initiatives, including a stalled push to eliminate $4 billion a year in tax breaks for oil companies and a highway package wending its way through Congress. Technically, the White House also is still pushing for the rest of Obama’s “American Jobs Act” from last year.

But in the past few weeks, the White House has focused on buffing the president’s record on energy, though that’s largely a defensive action in the wake of soaring gas prices and the GOP’s relentless push for the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Aside from the oil company tax bill, which the White House is coordinating with Senate Democrats, the president hasn’t been pushing for a big new energy package.

The highway reauthorization has gotten some administration attention, including an appearance on the Hill by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood with Democrats last week and statements from Obama, but it hasn’t gotten the daily blitz Obama used successfully on the payroll tax.

Several Senate Democrats say they’d like to see the president attack House Republicans daily on the highway bill, believing it might be his best bet for scoring a meaningful victory on jobs before the election.

“That’s what I would do, I’d take this transportation bill and pound it in, because it’s such a large number of job opportunities and everybody understands it,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said. “When you’re talking about roads, transit, bridges — people, they get that. They understand that’s real stuff.”

Begich said the looming Saturday deadline for expiration of the transportation bill as the spring construction season gears up raises the urgency for action. “When you start getting to June or July [before] you finally get Congress’ approval, you’re in trouble,” he said.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) said Obama’s agenda now is more a “constellation” of smaller issues, but she said the transportation bill would have a meaningful effect, and she’d like to see him push it harder.

“I’d love that,” she said.

Asked about the lack of a single top priority last week, senior administration officials at a background briefing pointed the finger at House Republicans. They said the administration and Obama want to get as much accomplished as possible but need to see signs of cooperation from the House in order to take action. They mentioned several bills, including the highway bill, as proposals they hope can get accomplished.

But even some of Obama’s allies on the Hill think that with the election already under way, there’s only so much appetite for taking on additional big-ticket items before November. And the more Obama pushes for something, the more pushback he’s likely to encourage from the GOP.

Aside from the highway reauthorization, the next key deadline is the end of September, when Congress must approve at least a stopgap spending measure to avoid a government shutdown. But the bigger deadlines come at the end of the year, when assorted tax cuts expire and big spending cuts are triggered. Administration officials acknowledged those decisions are going to wait until the lame-duck session.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he doesn’t see a singular priority coming from the president, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing with Republicans in control of the House. “It makes sense to have a bunch out there and see if one of them works,” he said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the administration does have a top priority — the remainder of the jobs act — and predicted it would step up its push for the transportation bill in particular.

But other Democrats give puzzled looks when asked what the White House’s top priority is beyond the generic topic of “jobs.”

“My guess is, generally, it’s the economy, but you’d have to ask them that,” Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said. “I don’t know.”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said everything is about jobs, but at this point, there’s not much chance Obama can get much else through, and if he pushes hard for something in particular, it could send Republicans running in the other direction.

“I don’t think there’s a legislative piece that stands a great opportunity of passage,” he said. “They’re not going to do it. It’s like, ‘Nope! It’s Obama’s idea? Nope!’”

Republicans say they want to work with Obama on jobs — pointing to the bipartisan support for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) JOBS Act reducing regulations on most startup companies, which the president embraced, as well as GOP efforts aimed at addressing gas prices. But they say the president already seems focused on his re-election campaign.

“We welcome any White House assistance, but we’re not expecting much since they’ve already made clear in words and actions that the payroll bill was their last priority before shifting full-time to election mode,” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “They can campaign; we’ll keep governing.”

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