WASHINGTON-Don't look for Christmas cheer in the nation's capital. After a year of tense partisan battles over budgets and deficits, Congress is proving itself incapable of doing anything but ending 2011 with a bang.
House Republicans threw down what could be their riskiest gauntlet yet Tuesday when they rejected a Senate plan for a two-month payroll tax cut extension.The irony in this latest Capitol Hill deadlock is that both parties say they favor the payroll tax holiday.
In fact, the Senate on Saturday displayed a rare spirit of bipartisanship, passing the temporary payroll tax extension in an overwhelming 89 to 10 vote. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, known as a poker-faced negotiator, was even seen giving someone a high five in celebration of the agreement that would also extend some unemployment benefits.
But this holiday mood did not drift across the U.S. Capitol to the House chamber. House Republicans, with their Tuesday votes, are trying to pressure the Senate into approving a yearlong extension. This pushback is a calculated political move that could backfire if millions of Americans see a decrease in their paychecks, predicted to average about $1,000 annually per household, at the beginning of an election year.
"A two-month extension is nothing more than kicking the can down the road," argued House Speaker Jon Boehner, R-Ohio, while surrounded by a platoon of his GOP lieutenants during a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday." We've done our work for the American people. Now it is up to the president and the Senate Democrats."
The House voted 229-193 on Tuesday to set up a House and Senate conference committee to hammer out their differences. But there is a problem: The Senate has already adjourned for the holidays. With no Senate votes scheduled until late January, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will not call the Senate back into session for more negotiations before the payroll tax cut expires.
"As the clock ticks towards a middle-class tax hike, I would implore Speaker Boehner to listen to sensible Senate Republicans and courageous House Republicans who are calling on him to take the responsible path," Reid said in a statement.
In the aftermath of this latest congressional breakdown, both parties are aggressively trying to win the messaging war and paint themselves as the real supporters of the payroll tax cut. House Republicans say they are here in Washington ready to work through the holidays while trying to convince taxpayers that the Senate Democrats are to blame for going home and not finishing negotiations.
"There is no reason we can't resolve this in short order," Boehner said. "We are going to insist on doing this the right way."
Senate Democrats, who forced the House into this take-it-or-leave-it option by bolting out of town after their Saturday vote, want to persuade taxpayers that it is the Republicans who should be tarred and feathered for the looming tax hike. House Republicans, Democrats argue, have chosen an ideological battle over the simplest solution by not approving the bipartisan Senate two-month extension.
President Barack Obama wasted no time jumping into the fray. During an unscheduled appearance in the White House press room moments after the House vote, Obama said the bipartisan compromise reached on Saturday is "the only viable way to prevent a tax hike" in January.
"Put politics aside, put aside issues where there are fundamental disagreements, and come together on something we agree on," the president said. "And let's not play brinksmanship. The American people are weary of it; they're tired of it."
While official Washington engages in the blame game, taxpayers face a hike that amounts to about $20 a week for a worker who earns a $50,000 salary, while others will see an end to their unemployment benefits.
Republicans further argue that the Senate's two-month extension is unworkable and too complex.
"The two-month patch moves the instability and tough payroll accounting work to every company in America while Congress heads home for the holidays," said Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla. "It creates uncertainty for employers budgeting their payroll. Two months of throwing money at the economy is no substitute for predictable tax policy."
Republicans may have sound arguments about the advantages of passing a yearlong extension now as opposed to having to revisit this debate two months from now. The Senate stopgap measure will not give assurances to families trying to budget past February and it will force small business owners to implement burdensome and potentially temporary payroll changes.
But rarely does a congressional action link so directly and so quickly to a person's paycheck. As a result, all those GOP arguments could feel empty to an estimated 160 million workers when they notice the immediate nick to their paychecks next month. That is something that Democrats won't let frustrated voters forget.
The House's decision to reject the Senate plan provides Democrats with a concrete example of Republicans actually thwarting a tax cut. It is a line of attack that the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, has promised to make the "defining issue" of the 2012 election.
The Capitol Hill's Christmas conflict also boosts Obama's campaign strategy of running against a do-nothing Congress.