House Republicans voted today to block a bipartisan Senate deal to extend a popular payroll tax cut for an additional two months and sought to instead force a conference committee with the Senate before heading home for Christmas vacation.
Though Members declined to directly give the Senate’s bill an up-or-down vote, the House passed a resolution 229-193 to reject the Senate language and go to conference.
The move is an effort by House Republicans, who lost the messaging upper hand this week, to put the heat back on the Senate by portraying its short-term extension as irresponsible policy not worthy of consideration. Leadership wants to force the Senate to return to Washington, D.C., and hash out a compromise.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) have already said they will not appoint conferees, insisting that the bipartisan deal cut between Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) should be passed to give Congress a chance to finish its work on a full-year extension.
But that position could force a last minute showdown before the tax cut expires next week, and Republicans are banking on public pressure to force Democrats to concede and come back to the table to negotiate a new deal.
“I don’t think anybody in this building or across America thinks legislating in two-months increments is good policy,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) said. “We’re going to go about our work, and we’re going to work here and ensure that Congress does pass a bill that ensures families understand what their tax posture is and they’re going to be afforded relief for the next year.”
Democrats, however, have indicated that they intend to keep hammering House Republicans — particularly the freshmen and the conference’s conservative tea party wing — as intransigent for not taking up a Senate compromise that passed 89-10, with 39 Republican Senators voting in favor.
House Republicans’ rejection of the Senate bill is “an obviously partisan, narrow ideological framework, contrary to what many of their Senators are saying,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) said. “I think they’re delaying and putting at risk the continuation of the middle-class tax cut, of the access to physicians by Americans on Medicare and they’re putting at risk the unemployment insurance.”
Democrats also objected to the way Republicans brought the bill to the floor. Instead of conducting an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill, the chamber voted to go to conference, effectively rejecting the Senate language without forcing Members to abandon a key GOP principle and implicitly vote against a tax cut.
The question of how the apparent breakdown between Boehner and McConnell occurred continues to be a topic of significant speculation with few satisfying answers.
When asked again by Roll Call today about the topic, Boehner refused to answer the question. But that has not stopped his Members from discussing the situation among themselves and pushing their leader to explain what, exactly, happened.
“That was discussed in the Conference last night. People didn’t quite understand how, when the Speaker left the meeting with Sen. McConnell and Sen. Reid, this abomination was what was sent back to us,” said Steven LaTourette (Ohio), one of Boehner’s closest allies in the House.
According to LaTourette, Boehner seemed “befuddled. ... The question was asked directly of him. That question was asked, ‘What’s the disconnect between you and Sen. McConnell?’ And he said he doesn’t know.”
When asked about McConnell’s now infamous high-five with Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) celebrating the deal, LaTourette quipped, “It should have been a low-five.”
Indeed, many House Republicans continued to criticize their Senate brethren and were particularly harsh when it came to McConnell, who many insisted knew his deal with Reid would not pass the House.
“Mr. McConnell knew the position of our leadership was [we] wanted to do a year-long. I don’t know what happened,” said Rep. Tom Latham (Iowa), Boehner’s closest friend and confidant on Capitol Hill.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t know what the Senate was thinking,” Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said today. West called the McConnell-Reid deal “crap.”
“I’m critical of the Senate for sending us something for two months. That’s horrible policy,” he added.
While a growing number of rank-and-file Senate Republicans have defended McConnell and attacked the decision by House Republicans to not accept the deal, McConnell and his staff have remained markedly silent. McConnell’s chief spokesman Don Stewart — who has regularly used Twitter and email to throw jabs at the White House and Democrats for months — has maintained strict radio silence since Saturday’s vote, and his office has rebuffed numerous requests for comment.
The notion that McConnell, one of the most cautious and deliberate leaders of the modern era, would move forward with a deal without Boehner’s blessing has raised skeptical eyebrows among Republicans and Democrats alike.
“I don’t believe it,” Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said today. “It’s on its face implausible that the leader of the Senate Republicans and the Speaker of the House, a Republican, would not be on the same page. It’s pretty clear what happened here, and that is that the agreement fell apart when the Speaker tried to sell it to the Republican conference.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.