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GOP Cautious in Payroll Tax Fight

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (left) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have appointed conferees to work out a one-year extension of the payroll tax cut by February.

The fight over an extension of the payroll tax cut was the last major legislative battle of 2011 — and now it’s a fight Republicans in particular are loath to repeat in the opening weeks of 2012.

The conference committee formed at the behest of House Republicans to deal with a long-term extension of the payroll tax holiday, unemployment benefits and Medicare doctor payments has already begun its work, albeit slowly. Members of each faction have been in talks during the holiday break, reviewing measures discussed in previous budget-negotiating groups and plodding forward to reach a deal before March. But Democrats clearly believe they have the upper hand, emboldened by a serious messaging win on the short-term payroll extension that divided Republicans in December.

And the political opportunity afforded to Democrats is not one they’ve been shy in trying to exploit.

“I don’t know what the Republicans are afraid of. Where are they? They’re telling us that they were in late in December so they can’t be here in January? What is this, one month on, one month off?” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Friday after House Democrats were blocked from opening the floor to discussion of the payroll tax cut.

“We were told with great vehemence [Thursday] that the Congress was in session,” the California Democrat continued, alluding to attacks launched against President Barack Obama’s controversial recess appointments. “That’s why we went to the floor ... to call upon the conferees to get to work.”

House Republican conferees held a conference call Friday to discuss the ongoing work by the Congressional Research Service and the Joint Committee on Taxation in identifying areas of overlap between the full-year House-approved bill and the initial two-month extension language approved by the Senate, neither of which became law.

A spokesperson for House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (Mich.), who is leading the GOP contingent, said that “all Members are anxious to begin” the committee’s formal work, but it’s unclear how soon that will happen. The House is not expected back until Jan. 17, with the Senate returning on Jan. 23. Senate sources indicated it’s possible their conferees would return early, but it was not immediately clear that they would do so.

Either way, Members are working  against a Feb. 29 deadline, when the current compromise two-month payroll tax cut extension will expire.

The timeline for the committee’s work, both when it will start and how quickly it can finish, will be dictated more than anything by politics and messaging.

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