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Payroll Tax Cut Standoff Begins

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Speaker John Boehner chose his members today for a conference committee with the Senate to negotiate on a payroll tax cut extension, but House Democrats and the Senate have not followed suit.

Boehner also chose Chairman of House Republican Leadership Greg Walden (Ore.); three freshmen, Reps. Renee Ellmers (N.C.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.) and Tom Reed (N.Y.); and Tom Price (Ga.), who along with Brady is a member of the Ways and Means Committee. Price is also a member of the Republican Doctors Caucus, which has been outspoken on patching a scheduled pay cut to doctors, also known as the “doc fix,” which is part of both the Senate and House payroll tax cut bills.

Senate Democrats have been happy to stand back and watch House Republicans fight a multiple-front war, first Monday against their Senate GOP counterparts and then today, with House Democrats launching a media blitz on the floor and in the press room.

Democrats also said they feel no pressure to jump at a conference, arguing the GOP has set a recent precedent for ignoring conference report entreaties: It has refused to name conferees for a Federal Aviation Administration bill for more than a year.

Vulnerable Senate Republicans in 2012 have also been demanding the House GOP take up the compromise, as Democrats on the other side of the dome have reveled in the apparent intraparty chaos.

But more broadly, the holiday season bitterness was the symbol of a broader dysfunction that has crippled Congress for most of the year.

To be sure, Congressional dysfunction is nothing new; long gone are the days of completing appropriations bills months before the end of the fiscal year or weeks-long December recesses. For years, leaders have used recess deadlines and threats of weekend sessions to muscle unruly conferences into line.

But the level of dysfunction that has characterized the 112th Congress may be unparalleled.

Aside from passage of trade agreements in September and a handful of minor policy bills, virtually the only bills that have made it to President Barack Obama’s desk have either been appropriations measures, the most basic function of Congress, or emergency stopgap bills to avert government shutdowns or credit downgrades. And even those have come only after Congress took itself and the nation to the brink of collapse.

The reasons for the dysfunction are varied, from gridlock in the closely divided Senate to Boehner’s increasing difficulty in managing the expectations and actions of his unruly conference.

But regardless of the reason why, lawmakers acknowledge they have reached a new low.

When asked about the remarkable level of acrimony in Congress, Rep. Jim Moran asked: “Who’s not saying that? Is there someone that doesn’t think that?

“It was bad in ’95, but it wasn’t this bad. ... You’ve got so many Members that came in with the thesis that government can’t function, and now that they’re elected they want to make sure that’s the case. They want to prove it,” the Virginia Democrat added.

Rep. Timothy Johnson, who was one of only seven Republicans to vote against going to conference today, agreed, saying his caucus in particular has become increasingly harsh in its tone.

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