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With only three days left before a government shutdown, Democrats took a gamble Tuesday, strategically linking a package to extend the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits to an all-but-agreed-upon bill that wraps up fiscal 2012 appropriations.
The White House and Senate Democrats are delaying action on the omnibus spending package because they worry that approving it would remove the incentive for House Republicans to stay in town and reach a compromise on the payroll tax cut extension. But in the process, they've made themselves vulnerable to the attack they've been using all year against Republicans: that they're holding the government hostage until they get what they want.
The House voted 234-193 to pass its version of the extenders package Tuesday. In addition to extending the payroll tax holiday, it would also extend long-term unemployment benefits and head off a scheduled cut to reimbursements for doctors who treat Medicare patients.
The House GOP package, however, turned off Democrats and the White House because it includes provisions to expedite approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline project and reduce Clean Air Act regulations for boilers, as well as slow funding for the health care reform law.
Democrats, who want to pay for the extension by taxing wealthy Americans, also blast the GOP's bill for trimming the federal workforce and extending a freeze of their pay.
The White House on Tuesday threatened a veto of the House bill in the strongest language available, stating baldly that the president "would veto the bill."
A frustrated Rep. Mike Simpson — who as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment has slogged his way through dozens of riders to reach a bipartisan deal — said Democrats are playing shutdown politics.durb
"They're trying to get some leverage on the tax bill," the Idaho Republican said. "After six months of trying to blame Republicans for trying to shut down the government, they're the ones that won't sign the conference report that would keep the government open."
Even some Democrats were frustrated at the tactic.
"Our bill is done, and it should go to the president immediately," said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), ranking member on Simpson's subcommittee. "We're not holding it up. ... I can't speak for Harry Reid. I can't speak for him. As far as I'm concerned, it should be done."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney would not say Tuesday whether President Barack Obama had instructed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to prevent conferees from signing off on the appropriations bill, saying only that the two men "agreed to a course of action here that would ensure" the payroll tax holiday extension. "We're not hiding from that at all," Carney added.