House GOP takes a political beating in payroll tax fight

Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaks to the media before a meeting with the conference committee on the payroll tax cut on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011 in Washington. From left, House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., Boehner, Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaks to the media before a meeting with the conference committee on the payroll tax cut on Dec. 21, 2011 in Washington. From left, House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., Boehner, Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Updated at 12:15 p.m. ET

Republicans and Democrats in Congress are deadlocked over a bill to extend the payroll tax cut, with just about 10 days to stop a tax increase for 160 million Americans.

House Republicans have so far refused to accept a compromise with Senate Democrats and President Obama -- but while they may be holding out for a legislative victory, they are already losing the fight politically.

The fight over the payroll tax cut extension took a surprising turn this week when the GOP-led House refused to accept a Senate-passed version of the bill, which passed with 89 votes and the support of all but seven Republicans.

Now, lawmakers in the Republican party are questioning their leaders' decisions and prominent conservative opinion-makers like the Wall Street Journal editorial board are skewering the GOP for botching the payroll tax cut debate. The Journal's editorial board wrote that, "Given how [Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell] and House Speaker John Boehner have handled the payroll tax debate, we wonder if they might end up re-electing the president before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest."

Democrats appear to have the same idea, seizing the opportunity to attack the Republican party for raising taxes.

Both Democrats and some Republicans want to extend the tax cut, but the parties are divided over how to pay for it, as well as unrelated measures that have been included in the debate, such as a provision relating to a transcontinental oil pipeline.

The Senate has passed a two-month extension of the tax cut -- a temporary measure designed to give Congress more time to negotiate the sticking points. Instead of voting on the Senate bill, the House voted in favor of forming a "conference committee" -- a small group of lawmakers from both the Senate and the House that would work out the two chambers' differences.

In remarks to reporters Wednesday morning, Boehner explained the House GOP position this way: "Let's extend the payroll tax credit for a year. And all we're asking for is to get the Senate members over here to work with us to resolve our differences so we can do what everybody wants to do, extend the payroll tax credit for the next year."

Obama calls Boehner to push for payroll tax cut extension

By skirting a direct vote on the Senate bill, GOP leaders avoided putting their members in a tough spot -- either voting against a popular payroll tax cut or relenting to the Senate. But while the House GOP may have technically avoided the tough vote, the motion that passed Tuesday still looks like a vote against the tax cut.

As the Journal editorial board writes, "The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play."

If they payroll tax cut is not extended by the end of the year, 160 million Americans would see their payroll tax increase from 4.2 percent to 6.2 percent. Failure to act would also result in cuts to Medicare doctors' fees and a lapse in jobless benefits.

So far, Democrats are not giving in to Boehner's demands for a conference committee. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid say they won't send any of their members to a conference and insist that House Republicans should just pass the two-month extension. Reid on Wednesday released a letter to Boehner, urging him to bring the House back to Washington and finish the job.

House Republicans have been critical of Boehner and McConnell for not acting from the same playbook. Senate Republicans say that Boehner should back the two-month extension, which McConnell negotiated with the Democrats.

Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., said "now is not the time for drawing lines in the sand," while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the ongoing fight is "harming the Republican party" and "harming the view, if it's possible anymore, of the American people about Congress."

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said there was "no reason" for House Republicans to keep up their fight, adding that "what is playing out in Washington, D.C. this week is about political leverage, not about what's good for the American people."

Some House Republicans complained that it should have been clear to McConnell that House Republicans wouldn't accept a two-month extension.

"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," Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, a Boehner ally, told Roll Call.

It's unusual for Republican lawmakers to break ranks with their leaders, so the current dissension indicates that GOP members are well aware of the political risk of letting the payroll tax increase in 2012.

Democrats are exploiting the fact that the House GOP's most conservative members have compelled Republicans to take that risk. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is circulating a petition that reads, "The Tea Party is mugging the middle class with a tax increase because they don't think millionaires and corporations should pay their fair share."

The issue is also coming up in specific 2012 races: The Hill reports that Democrats in North Dakota sent out a news release blasting GOP Rep. Rick Berg, a 2012 Senate candidate, for being "more interested in playing hyper-partisan games than standing up for middle-class North Dakota families."

The White House, meanwhile, released an email highlighting the fact that, if the tax cut isn't extended, the typical family making $50,000 a year will lose about $40 from each paycheck. The email asked, "What Does $40 Mean to You?" and the White House says it has received about 10,000 responses on WhiteHouse.gov.

"Opponents of the payroll tax cut dismiss its impact by insisting $40 isn't a lot of money, but that's not the case for many families who are already working hard to make ends meet," the White House email said. "Forty dollars buys a tank of gas or a fridge and pantry full of groceries. It covers a water bill or the cost of a prescription."

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