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Payroll Conferees May Meet Privately

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman said payroll tax cut conferees might have to meet privately to work out an agreement and get the legislation passed before the end-of-the-month deadline.

As talks stalled Wednesday, Members of Congress on the payroll tax cut conference committee began to acknowledge that negotiations might have to go behind closed doors for any real work to get done.

Senate Democrats met off-campus at their private annual retreat attended by President Barack Obama. Republican conferees, meanwhile, huddled in House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp’s office for about an hour.

“We had a good meeting and we’re working through issues, but it’s kind of hard to make much progress until we get a proposal from the Senate,” the Michigan Republican said.

Most of the contentious issues surrounding the extension of a payroll tax holiday and a lapse in Medicare payments to doctors remained unsettled, and Republican conferees said they were still awaiting an offer on unemployment insurance issues from Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

That offer is expected to come today and will likely address the most controversial unemployment insurance issues, such as the number of weeks to pay out benefits and GOP-favored requirements that jobless beneficiaries be tested for drugs. Members and staff were tight-lipped about the specifics of any offer Wednesday.

Members had been told to keep their schedules open this morning, but as of press time, Camp, co-chairman of the conference committee, had not decided whether a meeting would occur or whether any potential meeting would be open to the public.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) had some cause to think Members could make more headway if the talks were out of the public eye.

“We haven’t had any progress with them being in public, so maybe if we do one private meeting, we can actually make some progress,” he said.

But despite Upton holding that there have been “very few private discussions going on,” he said progress has been made toward an agreement to sell telecommunications spectrum as an offset to a potential package.

“We had a $16.5 billion pay-for as part of that [House-passed bill], and I think we’re getting pretty close” to that number, Upton said. “We’re meeting with the Democratic staff, and [having] some Member discussion, and we really have made some progress.”

Conferees said progress has also been made on settling minor unemployment insurance issues, such as a requirement that states recover overpaid jobless benefits and a mandate that those who receive benefits seek re-employment, two items in the House-passed bill.

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