WASHINGTON - Top House Republicans said Sunday they oppose a bipartisan, Senate-approved bill that extends a payroll tax cut and jobless benefits for just two months and said congressional bargainers need to write a new version lasting a longer time.
Their comments, along with a House GOP conference call Saturday in which lawmakers voiced strenuous objections to the Senate bill, made clear that House Republicans were intent on changing the measure and left its ultimate fate uncertain.
The Senate used a 89-10 vote Saturday to approve the legislation, which was negotiated by Senate GOP and Democratic leaders and backed by strong majorities of senators from both parties. The House planned to vote on the measure Monday.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Sunday that the bill - which includes the payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits and a halt to scheduled Medicare reimbursement cuts for doctors - needs to last an entire year. That was the original goal of President Barack Obama and congressional leaders as they worked on the legislation in recent weeks.
As if to suggest other changes he would like in the legislation, Boehner mentioned a provision that would block Obama administration anti-pollution rules and "reasonable reductions in spending" that were in a House-passed version of the payroll tax bill that the Senate ignored.
"It's pretty clear I and our members oppose the Senate bill," Boehner said on "Meet the Press" on NBC. He added, "I believe two months is just kicking the can down the road."
House Republicans dislike the Senate bill for many reasons, including its lack of what they consider real spending cuts and its removal of restrictions on Obama administration rules. Others are unhappy about extending unemployment benefits or cutting the payroll tax, which is used to finance the Social Security system.
Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said when the House votes on the bill Monday, it would either formally request negotiations with the Senate or approve changes "so that it is responsible and in line with the needs of hard-working taxpayers and middle-class families."
Her emailed statement did not specify what those changes might be.
The White House and Democrats, who were initially the driving force for the legislation over some GOP reluctance, sought to blame Republicans for any delay the House demands might create. Unless Congress acts by Jan. 1, the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits expire and the Medicare cut in doctors' payments will take effect.
"Instead of threatening middle-class families with a thousand-dollar tax hike, Speaker Boehner should bring up the bipartisan compromise that Senator McConnell and I negotiated," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a written statement.
Keeping this year's 2 percentage point payroll tax cut in effect through 2012 would produce $1,000 in savings for a family earning $50,000 a year.
Reid said Boehner had asked him and McConnell to work out a compromise. House Republicans have said they played no role in last week's talks between the two Senate leaders.
"I really think it is very unlikely that the House would disrupt this overwhelming compromise six days before Christmas," said Gene Sperling, director of the White House's National Economic Council.
The Senate bill would force Obama to make a decision in the next two months on whether to build the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The president had initially said he would postpone a decision on the 1,700-mile-long pipeline until after next year's elections and threatened to kill the payroll tax bill if it included the pipeline provision. But he backed off this week as the Senate payroll compromise took shape.
Republicans strongly support the pipeline, which is supposed to pump oil from Alberta, Canada, to Texas, for the thousands of jobs it is expected to create. Unions favor the plan but environmentalists oppose it, forcing Obama to choose between two Democratic constituencies.
The Senate bill says Obama can reject the pipeline only if he decides building it would not be in the national interest.
Congressional leaders had hoped that approval of the tax measure would end their work and let them send lawmakers home for the year. It is unclear how long it would take House and Senate leaders to work out any new compromise on the legislation, but Boehner suggested it could done in the next two weeks.
The Senate bill would extend this year's 4.2 payroll tax rate through February. Without congressional action, that rate would return to 6.2 percent on Jan. 1, costing 160 million workers a two-month tax break. A $50,000-a-year wage earner would save about $170.
The bill would continue extra unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, which would also expire Jan. 1. It would also prevent a 27 percent cut in doctors' Medicare reimbursements from occurring on New Year's Day, a cut that could discourage some physicians from treating Medicare-covered patients.