After a tense game of chicken earlier this week, Congressional leaders appeared to step back from the brink today, with Speaker John Boehner telling reporters he’s confident that Congress can finish its year-end work.
Though the Ohio Republican said he has “no indications” that Senate Democrats are ready to move forward on a package of spending bills, Boehner said there has been “some movement” between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to come to “common ground.”
“Look I’ve been here for a while. This is not the first time I’ve seen year-end work get knotted up,” the Speaker said. “But I think everyone just needs to step back and take a deep breath. I think there’s an easy way to untangle all of this. We just need to let the Members do their jobs and we need to let the two institutions do their work.”
Sources said staffers for Reid and McConnell are actively exploring today whether they can find a compromise on the payroll tax cut extension and other issues, such as unemployment insurance and the Medicare physicians’ reimbursement rate, known as the doc fix.
The Senate leaders expressed renewed optimism today that they may be able to avoid both a government shutdown and an impasse on the payroll tax issue.
The change in tone is significant, particularly from the Speaker who just last night was stridently accusing Senate Democrats of brinkmanship and calling on Democratic appropriators to sign a conference report on a year-long spending agreement. He then moved to bring a standalone spending bill to the floor Friday in an attempt to undercut a Senate Democratic move to tie passage of the omnibus spending bill to an agreement on the payroll tax cut.
It is unclear whether Boehner has the votes within the GOP Conference to pass the omnibus, but Republicans introduced it Wednesday evening and Boehner maintained today that he is still willing to vote on it if the Senate does not sign off on the conference report.
“It’s my hope that the conferees will sign the conference report and we will bring it to the floor of the House,” he said. “If it does not happen, I’ve taken the essence of that bill and put it into a House bill and we’re prepared to move that if necessary.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, however, said Members in her caucus would not vote for the spending measure Boehner introduced Wednesday evening. Instead, the California Democrat said she hoped the chamber could move forward with the omnibus conference report that has yet to be signed.
“There are a number of objections to the bill, but the more important question is where is the White House because they have the signature,” Pelosi said of the new spending bill.
Boehner also called on the Senate to bring to the floor under an open process a House-passed bill that would extend the payroll tax holiday, unemployment insurance benefits and the doc fix. Senators should amend it and send it back to the House, he said.
“There’s an easy way to resolve our issues on the payroll tax cut bill,” Boehner said. “No more showboats I think it’s just time to legislate. I think America needs to see us earning our paychecks.”
The House bill includes several provisions that Democrats consider poison pills, such as rollbacks of environmental regulations, cuts to health care reform and a fast-track on the Keystone XL oil pipeline project.
Boehner down played Democrats’ new willingness to drop their insistence on a millionaires’ surtax on the payroll tax measure, saying, “I appreciate the fact they gave up on their millionaires surtax, but they didn’t give up anything because they never had [the votes for] it.”
Pelosi, on the other hand, called on Republicans to offer some concessions in return.
“I think it’s a sign of cooperation, of willingness, to remove obstacles to have an agreement by saying okay, that’s something you can’t agree to,” Pelosi said.
Boehner did not tip his hand as to where he could compromise. He sidestepped a question about whether Republicans would be willing to drop the pipeline project to get to a deal, saying only, “We believe strongly that this is the right thing to do for the country.”
While the Senate negotiates, Boehner said he sees no reason for the House to stay in session if an appropriations package moves through his chamber. He said he is committed to bringing the House back “within 24 hours” if and when a compromise is hashed out on the payroll tax package.
But President Barack Obama warned Congress again today not to leave town for the holidays without passing extensions of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits.
“Congress should not and cannot go on vacation” before preventing a payroll tax increase and ensuring unemployed people don’t lose their benefits, he said.
“There is no reason the government should shut down over this,” Obama added.
The president made his remarks as he laid out the latest of his “we can’t wait” executive initiatives aimed at boosting jobs — this one on new work rules giving overtime and minimum-wage benefits to home health workers.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.