Senior administration officials today crowed about wins for President Barack Obama's agenda in the year-end endgame — even though the two-month payroll tax cut extension bill included only a sliver of Obama's $447 billion jobs package.
The officials dismissed the inclusion of language requiring the president to decide on the Keystone XL pipeline within the next 60 days. That language will almost certainly kill the pipeline administration officials contend; they argue Republicans should get the blame for forcing the issue. They declined to say whether they might issue a signing statement declaring the issue dead but contend the bill doesn't force Obama's hand.
"They aren't making the president do anything," one official said.
Republican aides, however, say that the bill will force Obama to take ownership of killing the pipeline and the jobs that would go with it.
The administration officials also downplayed the fact that Congress only mustered a two-month extension, moving past statements Obama made earlier that it would be "inexcusable" for Congress not to extend it for the full year.
"We've kind of crossed the Rubicon," said one senior official, noting that majorities in both chambers are now on record backing a payroll tax cut extension. "Are they really going to be in a position, March 1, seven months before an election, to allow taxes to go up for everybody?"
The official said Obama would continue to make the case for the rest of his jobs agenda next year, including items that have been largely sidelined, such as spending on infrastructure, teachers and payroll tax cuts for small business owners.
"We think the economy still needs a lot more help," the official said. The official added that having the focus on the payroll tax cut extension early next year could have political benefits. "We don't think that's a bad playing field for us."
The officials also sought to portray the omnibus appropriations bill as a win for the president, given that House Republicans took over after a historic election on promises to roll back health care reform and much of the rest of the Obama agenda.
Instead, officials noted, the year-end omnibus includes $270 million to implement Obama's health care reform after numerous efforts to roll back the law failed. "They caved on every one of those attempts," one official said, declaring it a "shift in Washington" against the GOP surge from a year ago.
Officials said the omnibus includes funding to implement the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. And they touted the blocking of numerous other items sought by House Republicans, including efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, nix regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency and slash the EPA's budget. The administration also declared victories on funding for 60,000 Head Start slots, AmeriCorps and the president's policy on Cuba.
But mostly the White House's victories, such as they are, were on playing defense. Almost none of the president's jobs proposals, beyond extending current policy, have become law. And Republicans successfully blocked any increase in taxes on the wealthy. The final deal will increase the cost of most mortgages by hiking fees at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac instead, although a senior official said that was consistent with Obama's push to ultimately wind-down the mortgage giants and shouldn't affect the housing market much because the fee hikes will be phased in over two years.
The officials also said it was important that the final deal also kept intact the spending levels agreed to in the summer as part of the debt limit negotiations, with the administration defeating repeated Republican attempts at further cuts.