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Congress will trade partisan potshots over payroll tax cut plans this week, but one chronic issue is likely to be missing from the mix: the specter of a government shutdown.
Even as Washington became embroiled in a debate over how to extend the payroll tax cuts and long-term unemployment benefits, appropriators worked efficiently to wrap up spending legislation for the year. In doing so, they might have neutralized a key weapon for Democrats: the claim that Republicans engage in shutdown politics.
Unlike this year’s spending fights, during which some Democrats likened their disputes with the GOP to negotiating with terrorists, talk of a government shutdown has been absent from the pre-Christmas political theater.
Instead, debate over the three already-passed spending bills and nine more expected to see the light of day this week has been relatively smooth. If the remaining appropriations bills pass without issue, the criticism might be holstered until after the 2012 elections.
At a Friday news conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had harsh words for her Republican counterparts, saying they are “holding hostage” a payroll tax cut extension by adding provisions to defund health care reform and to fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline project.
“Time is growing short. Taking it to the limit of Dec. 23 or having to stay here over Christmas, it’s an inconvenience for us. But it’s really unfair to the American people,” the California Democrat said.
On appropriations, however, Pelosi struck a far more measured tone: “We’re hoping that we can, in a bipartisan way, get our work done on the appropriations bills,” she said, adding nothing more on the subject.
Republicans and Democrats have stripped House-passed bills of objectionable riders to draw the bipartisan support necessary to pass a large spending package.
The willingness to do so on the part of the GOP is a function of the fact that the major spending fight — the August battle to set spending levels at $1.043 trillion — is behind them, a GOP leadership aide said. An equally important factor driving the cooperation is the fact that the House Republican Conference — which was very conscious of Democrats’ shutdown attacks — came back from August recess ready to put that criticism to bed.
“The broad contours of the overall spending are set,” the aide said. “It’s important to show people that there’s no contradiction between fighting for our principles and governing.”
“The Democrats,” a second GOP leadership aide said, “have been saying all year that we want to shut down the government, and that’s never been the case. We haven’t shut down the government. They’re starting to sound like the boy who cried wolf.”
That’s not to say there’s a large margin for error. The GOP risks losing conservatives if the bill doesn’t stress their priorities, and Democrats could sink the bill if they think it goes too far. The most contentious bills — those funding environmental and health programs — could be presented as continuing resolutions.
Rep. Steven LaTourette, an appropriator, nonetheless was upbeat before leaving the Capitol on Friday.
“I think things are going to be fine,” the Ohio Republican said. “We’re going to produce a product this week that most Members are going to be able to vote on, and we’re going to get a lot of Democrats, because we have come back to regular order and we have actually included the Democrats in the process.”
In the Senate, aides agreed the fight over the extenders package had cleared the way for easier approval of the appropriations bills, if the House can pass them.
Aides said they hoped to clear the appropriations legislation swiftly. But the good feelings about keeping the government open were overshadowed by the intensifying exenders fight, which would also head off a steep cut in reimbursements to doctors who treat Medicare patients.
House Republicans unveiled their extenders plan Friday. In addition to the pipeline and health care provisions, the package would roll back Environmental Protection Agency regulations and extend a pay freeze for federal workers through fiscal 2013.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement Friday that the House plan wouldn’t fly.
“If the House sends us their bill with Keystone in it, they are just wasting valuable time because it will not pass the Senate,” Reid said.
Another stumbling block is unemployment insurance.
The GOP bill includes changes to the system, along the lines of those passed by the House Ways and Means Committee this year.
They include requiring recipients to be in a GED program if they do not have a high school degree, participate in re-employment programs, and actively search for work. The bill also would increase states’ flexibility to “test and evaluate innovative state-based solutions” and allow states to make eligibility contingent on drug testing.
Democrats have expressed openness to some changes, particularly if they were similar to those outlined by President Barack Obama when he released his jobs legislation over the summer.
But even some Senate Republican aides conceded there is not enough time to find consensus on a larger overhaul of the unemployment insurance system before the end of the year.
The White House continued to attack the Republican bill but without formally guaranteeing a veto — or declaring a bottom line on what the president can support.
“We keep working towards a solution,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “We are open to looking at other ways to pay for this, but they have to be economically responsible, and fair.”
Carney, when pressed whether the president’s statement that he would “reject” attaching the Keystone pipeline to the deal meant he would veto it, was noncommittal. “Reject means reject,” Carney said. He noted that Senate Democrats have already said the pipeline wouldn’t go anywhere in the Senate, so there would be nothing to veto anyway. Carney said the pipeline has “nothing to do” with whether people should have their taxes raised at the end of the year, and he said that sort of maneuver is “what gives Washington a bad name.”
Carney said Republicans’ proposals would put the “burden on working families” so that the GOP could protect loopholes and subsidies for big corporations and millionaires. He also rejected a GOP proposal to pay for the bill by cutting subsidies from the new health care law, which Carney described as refighting an old battle.
Carney said asking the middle class “to bear the burden of this deal is punishing the people you are trying to help with this middle-class tax cut.”
Noting that Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) said he was more supportive of the package because Obama was against it, Carney wondered whether Obama should come out and say he’s against education, infrastructure and the payroll tax cut to try to get the Republicans to support them.
Carney also repeated that the president is prepared to stay in town, through Christmas if necessary, until Congress acts to extend the payroll tax cut.