Updated: 3:42 p.m.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) see a political peril in opposing extension of the president’s payroll tax holiday. The trouble is, their rank and file don’t seem to be getting the message.
While Boehner warned GOP Members on Wednesday that “if you guys think that not extending the payroll tax cut is politically advantageous, you’ve got to be kidding yourself,” those staunchly against extending the tax break charge that their leadership is wrong on the politics and should listen to the Members.
“I do think they’re misreading it. I just think they’re wrong on this. I think they’re wrong,” Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) said today after a GOP Conference meeting during which members were presented with a broad plan to extend the payroll tax and several other items set to expire by year’s end.
Similarly, McConnell failed to keep his Conference united on a GOP alternative to extend the payroll tax cut in a vote Thursday night — two days after he predicted a majority of his Conference would support an extension of President Barack Obama’s payroll tax cut. Twenty-six Republicans voted against the Senate GOP plan, introduced by Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.) and backed by McConnell.
The tension between GOP leaders and their Members is likely to continue next week as both chambers try to work out agreements on a host of priorities set to expire by the end of the year.
Today, Boehner presented his Conference with a rough proposal that, among other things, would extend the payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits and payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients. His offer included offsets similar to those in the Senate GOP’s rejected payroll tax plan, which called for trimming the federal workforce by 10 percent and means-testing programs such as Medicare, unemployment insurance and food stamps so that benefits are reduced for upper-income earners.
House Republicans exiting their Conference meeting said discussions were just beginning and that, like several other dicey subjects that have moved through the chamber this year, the payroll tax issue will require a heavy sales pitch from top leaders.
“There will be ongoing discussion with our Members on the make-up of this package,” the aide said. “There are some concerns.”
Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp maintained, “We don’t have a plan,” and that at the moment, “We just have some ideas we’re talking about. We’re still trying to reach an agreement, so we’re talking to some of our Members.”
Conservatives oppose even extending the payroll tax cut, but how many will stick together against doing so is unclear. Flake told reporters today, “Unless we have the courage right now to address entitlement reform, we shouldn’t be extending the payroll tax holiday. We don’t have the courage to do that.”
The same goes for the Senate, where some Republicans dismissed the tax cut extension as a Band-Aid approach to an otherwise serious problem in the current tax code.
“This extension is yet another example of Washington’s ‘benefit now, pay later’ mentality, and it moves us further away from solving our long-term spending and deficit problems,” Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), one of 26 Republicans to vote against the GOP alternative, said Thursday. “We need to simplify and flatten our tax code in a way that eliminates loopholes, broadens the base and reduces rates across the board, making it more efficient and conducive to long-term growth. There seems to be a lot of bipartisan consensus around these concepts, but this extension takes us in the opposite direction.”
Though the Thursday Senate vote exposed the divide within the party on what has emerged as a relatively popular issue, Republicans say it also demonstrated that McConnell will be able to provide Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) with the extra votes needed to overcome a filibuster of whatever compromise legislation the two parties devise before Christmas.
Democrats, of course, see it differently. They believe McConnell, who is generally a disciplined floor master, thought he would have more unity behind the Republican plan. The GOP leader had said earlier in the week that there was clearly a majority sentiment within his caucus to extend the expiring tax breaks to employees. In the past year, intraparty divisions typically have wreaked havoc on House Republican vote counters, with Senate GOP Members demonstrating a remarkable amount of unity.
"He usually doesn't find himself in this situation because he has a strategist's mind," one Senate aide said. "When he senses that the political winds are against him, he lies low. ... He does not lead with his chin unless he feels he has the votes."
Democrats, including Obama, have hammered Republicans in recent weeks over the need to extend and expand the payroll tax cut in order to put more money in the pockets of middle-class Americans. Letting the current law expire would amount to a tax increase on the middle class, they say.
However, House Democrats are also splintered on the payroll tax cut, with liberals opposed to its current offset and fearful it would siphon money from the Social Security trust fund. Still, the party has largely stayed mum on the issue and instead trained its fire on Republicans for not moving ahead to extend a tax benefit aimed at the middle class.
“We have a real advantage on taxes, it’s not just rhetorical. We’ve got the policy high ground, the political high ground, and we’ve got them trying to defend the indefensible,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) told reporters.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also seized on the Republican disarray by hastily calling a news conference today to blast the GOP’s plan.
“The Democrats put the heat on them on the payroll tax cut and that disarray might be a result,” the California Democrat said. “We cannot go home for Christmas unless we pass this legislation.”
Congress also has until Dec. 16 to act before temporary spending expires. With so many issues left to do, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) notified Members on Thursday that the chamber would be in session the week of Dec. 12 to wrap things up before adjourning for the year. The House was originally scheduled to recess at the end of next week. Speaking on the floor today, Cantor said he hoped the House would not have to be in session beyond Dec. 16.
Responding to a scheduling question from Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Cantor said, “It is my hope that we can finish our business by the week of the 12th.” The Senate has not set a target adjournment date.
Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.