Feb. 14, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Payroll Tax Cut Conferees Avoiding Sticky Issues

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (above) advocated for a proposal that unemployment beneficiaries show progress toward getting a GED or high school diploma — a proposal that Sen. Benjamin Cardin called “fundamentally flawed.”

Members aiming to hash out a deal on the payroll tax cut conference committee still find themselves on shaky ground after their second meeting, with broad agreement on where to go but little agreement on how to get there.

Still, an opening offer from Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) looks to secure at least some progress on low-hanging fruit at today’s follow-up meeting.

The 20 conferees agreed Wednesday on general goals: extend the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits for the balance of the year and temporarily prevent cuts to doctors’ Medicare reimbursement while working on a long-term solution.

When it comes to paying for or changing the programs, however, there was almost no accord, and the panel’s co-chairman, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, encouraged Members to ignore talk of how to pay for things for now.

“What we’re really trying to do is make sure we agree on policies today,” the Michigan Republican said. “We want to begin at least to find areas where there are agreements.”

In that endeavor, the group might have a small breakthrough, as Baucus, the Democratic co-chairman, is poised to offer his counterparts an olive branch on some minor unemployment insurance reforms.

“I would hope that we can reach as much agreement on those provisions as possible,” Baucus told the panel. “To make headway, we’ll prepare a good-faith offer” to submit to the House and discuss at today’s meeting.

Baucus said the offer would not include issues such as mandatory drug testing or the total length of time benefits should be paid but would be limited to “second-tier issues.”

He indicated the proposal could include a requirement that states recover overpaid jobless benefits and a mandate that those who receive benefits seek re-employment, two items in the House bill.

Nevertheless, the details of what the Democratic conferees plan to offer were closely guarded Wednesday — so close that many top Senate Democratic leadership staffers were not briefed on the offering by press time.

The least controversial pieces of unemployment insurance reform likely will look like what President Barack Obama proposed in his jobs bill last September. The administration proposed giving greater flexibility to states, something Republicans support in principle, by creating incentives for employers and laid-off workers.

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