Congressional Republicans were in disarray today, with Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) denying he ever agreed to a deal he commissioned Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to strike and the party’s rank and file taking cross-chamber intraparty potshots.
Republicans have come full circle from last week, when they seized the upper hand in messaging by accusing Senate Democrats of playing shutdown politics.
Now, instead of claiming victory on the payroll tax cut compromise and heading home, many House Republicans are attacking the 39 GOP Senators who voted for the agreement McConnell crafted with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — and the Kentucky Republican himself for striking it.
“Mitch McConnell did an ineffective job negotiating with Harry Reid,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said. “They get distracted with their bingo night, so you can’t blame them for getting this one wrong. I totally disagree with them. I think they wimped out.”
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, especially those vulnerable in the 2012 cycle, began coming out against their House counterparts today, challenging the chamber to pass their bill.
“There is no reason to hold up the short-term extension while a more comprehensive deal is being worked out,” Sen. Dean Heller said. “What is playing out in Washington, D.C., this week is about political leverage, not about what’s good for the American people. Congress can work out a solution without stopping the payroll tax cut extension for the middle class, jeopardizing seniors’ access to health care or threatening unemployment insurance.”
It would be difficult for Congress to approve a conference report before the current payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits and Medicare “doc-fix” provisions expire. It could take the Senate as many as nine days to appoint conferees because of potential procedural hurdles. And conferences usually take days for negotiators to reconcile positions.
House Republicans, nevertheless, contend their Senate counterparts are punting tough issues.
At a news conference today, several House GOP freshmen expressed their disdain for the Senate product and called for a full-year extension. Asked what they thought of the overwhelming Senate vote — it passed 89-10 Saturday — the first-term Republicans had one common sentiment: disappointment.
“To our colleagues in the Senate GOP, I’m very troubled by their actions that they took and they demonstrated with that 89-to-10 vote,” Rep. Tom Reed (N.Y.) said.
“This was a cop-out,” Rep. Allen West (Fla.) echoed. “I’m disappointed in them. I can’t understand why they would. It violates every pragmatic principle that we all stand for.”
Still, GOP Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Dick Lugar (Ind.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Susan Collins (Maine) joined Heller in reiterating their support for the short-term deal.
Lugar, appearing on MSNBC, pointed to the stress in the House GOP Conference.
“Speaker Boehner is under enormous pressure. He’s gotten a lot of feedback from many Republicans who say, ‘We just don’t like it.’ As a matter of fact, many Republicans would say, ‘We don’t really want the extension of the unemployment compensation or the rest of it anyway,’” Lugar said. “But I’m hopeful that our majority, Republicans and Democrats today, will proceed because it seems to me this is best for the country as well as for all the individuals who are affected.”
The criticism from the Senate GOP rank and file seemed to indicate frustration from Members who believed or were led to believe — rightly or wrongly — Saturday that they were voting en masse on a bill designed to pass Congress and become law.
Several sources said that in the Senate Republican Conference meeting held Friday night in the Strom Thurmond Room near McConnell’s office suite, the Kentucky Senator had expressed confidence that the two-month plan would pass the House and everyone could go home to enjoy their holidays. There are photos and video footage of McConnell high-fiving Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.).
The question is whether that confidence came from conversations with Boehner or whether McConnell assumed that if the bill cleared with nearly 90 percent of the Senate’s support, it would have an easier route through the House. Sources familiar with the meeting indicated last week that McConnell had conveyed the support of Boehner and the House, though by today, aides were tight-lipped about the specifics of the closed-door meeting.
In a media availability meeting this morning, Boehner denied he ever supported the deal between Reid and McConnell — the result of a negotiating process the Speaker said he kick-started last week by indicating he “would not enter into negotiations with them until the Senate produced a bill,” he said.
McConnell’s office refused to comment on Boehner’s characterization of the talks between the two Republican leaders, saying they do not speak publicly about private meetings involving their boss.
The Republican tumult now has some House Democrats wondering why their colleagues effectively snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and opened themselves up to a new onslaught of attacks.
The McConnell-Reid deal skirted an added tax on millionaires that is repugnant to Republicans and would have forced President Barack Obama to decide on a Keystone XL pipeline project that pits environmentalists against unions — two pillars of the Democratic base.
“They got a lot of what they wanted. Keystone was huge. The president threatened to veto it,” one Democratic staffer said. “Now I think that our party leadership is going to beat the s--- out of them on taxes, on middle-class tax relief.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said her Caucus was prepared to support the two-month measure even though it was not the deal they would have preferred.
“The Speaker had said very clearly all along that Leader Reid should negotiate with Leader McConnell. This is the compromise,” the California Democrat said before meeting with the Democratic Caucus. “This isn’t the bill we were advocating; we want one year. This is the compromise. This is just moving the goal posts.”
Senate Democrats dug in on their position that they passed a reasonable, bipartisan bill as a two-month stop-gap measure to ensure that Americans’ benefits do not lapse.
In the face of calls for a conference committee between the Senate’s two-month bill and the House’s full-year bill the chamber passed last week, Democrats say that, as of now, they have no plans to appoint conferees.
Each Senate Democratic leader struck back within the past 24 hours, with Reid saying today that Republicans faced a take-it-or-leave-it choice.
“Senator McConnell and I negotiated a compromise at Speaker Boehner’s request. I will not re-open negotiations until the House follows through and passes this agreement that was negotiated by Republican leaders, and supported by 90 percent of the Senate,” Reid said in a statement.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.