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Members of the payroll conference committee fought to a draw in their fourth public meeting Tuesday, making no progress toward finding a way to pay for a payroll tax holiday and dimming the prospects that a deal can be struck by the month’s end.
A Senate Democratic offer on unemployment insurance issues is in the works, and Members said they want to pick up the pace of the talks. But — barring a major breakthrough in the next few days, Members acknowledged — the latest high-stakes negotiation in a year of botched cross-party talks will go the way of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction: abject failure.
“I was very discouraged after today’s session,” conferee Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said. “We may be facing what Congress has faced every step of the way — in the super committee, on the debt ceiling.”
All the while, Congressional leaders are sniping at one another from afar and calling into question the very willingness of the other side to come to an agreement on a full-year extension of a payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance benefits and lapsing Medicare doctor payments.
“We have significant concerns about whether Senate Democrats are really willing to step up and work with House Republicans on the payroll tax cut bill,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters. “Senate Democrats have never come to the table with a plan to offset this new spending that they’re all for. And I’m concerned about the actions that they’ve taken.”
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leaders continued to put pressure on the conference committee, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) telling reporters Tuesday that the panel needs to come up with a product by early next week.
“We need an agreement next Monday or Tuesday. Otherwise, we’ll have to go to the floor with something,” said Reid, who last week said he had begun preparing a “backup” plan.
The back-and-forth was enough to drive House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, the conference committee’s co-chairman, to call for both sides to back off.
“Frankly, I guess my only point would be: Let’s let the conferees work,” the Michigan Republican said. “I don’t think the comments from either side of leadership from either body are particularly helpful.”
Camp’s counterpart, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), will present a second offer on unemployment insurance this week, this time dealing with the major points of contention.
The House-approved bill cuts the weeks of eligibility to 59 from 99 and allows states to require drug testing and education thresholds.