Why House Republicans are balking at payroll tax cut

Republicans in the House of Representatives don't like a two-month payroll tax cut extension. But American voters aren't  thrilled by the resulting payroll tax hike.

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., left, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 19, 2011,

“I don’t care about the political implications,” Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y, told National Journal. “I don’t care about my reelection effort. I came here to do what’s right for America.”

And so continued the second great GOP Congressional balk of 2011, where the House has walked away from a deal formed in the Senate that would push the payroll tax cut (dropping the Social Security withholding from Americans’ paychecks from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent, among other measures) two months into 2012.

As House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said on the House floor:

“The two-month concept doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. A two-month patch is irresponsible. That’s why the House is taking a stand — we believe all Americans deserve certainty.”

In fact, you’d have to say that Democrats - who were carping about certainty during the debt ceiling debate - aren’t providing much of it here. (Same goes for Senate Republicans, who nearly all voted for the Senate proposal.)

In fact, Decoder finds it somewhat refreshing to hear someone say the words “I don’t care about my reelection effort.”

(A quick caveat - Reed’s seat, New York’s 29th congressional district, is being contracted as New York loses a House seat due to a shrinking population. So, it’s unclear what his next steps are, anyway.)

Americans have hit a record level of distrust of Congress, as Gallup shows below: Sixty-four percent rate Congressional honest and ethics as very low or low - or about twice as bad as the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

What else is honesty but saying what you believe and believing what you say?

The (potential) problem for Congressional Republicans is America wants their taxes to stay down. If the House doesn’t pass the Senate bill, this isn’t going to happen. Although there hasn’t been any polling Decoder has seen about what the public wants out of the payroll tax cut debate (or associated measures), MSNBC’s First Read points out that you can figure out where the nation’s political preferences are on this issue pretty clearly:

To understand how House Republicans have backed themselves into a corner on extending the payroll tax cut, two Senate Republicans running in some of the most competitive contests next year are distancing themselves from the House GOP. “The House Republicans’ plan to scuttle the deal to help middle-class families is irresponsible and wrong,” said Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), who most likely will run against Democrat Elizabeth Warren in 2012. “The refusal to compromise now threatens to increase taxes on hard-working Americans and stop unemployment benefits for those out of work.”

And Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), who will run against Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, added: “What is playing out in Washington, D.C., this week is about political leverage, not about what’s good for the American people. Congress can work out a solution without stopping the payroll tax-cut extension for the middle class.” Bottom line: You know where the politics on this issue are when Brown and Heller are for/against something. Two other veteran senators, Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe, also both up for re-election in states carried by President Obama in ‘08, have joined the chorus of Republicans asking the House GOP to simply vote out the Senate bill.

In this case, then, one could argue that Congressional Republicans are doing the upright thing: battling against public opinion for something they truly believe in.

It isn’t too hard to see why the GOP side of the House has dug in its heels: as National Journal points out, the party’s freshman lawmakers, particularly, feel like they can’t lose.

"On the one hand, if they force Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) back to town then they’ve shown their political mettle. If they don’t, perhaps Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) laid out their future line of attack best: “I think that everyone across this entire nation will see Democrats for who they are.” That is, after Obama excoriated Republicans for looking to hightail it out of town without passing extensions to unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut, particularly, could Democrats turn their backs on Republican efforts to negotiate for a full year extension?"

This is a question about political process, yes, but it’s the political process of how Congress functions. We want our elected representatives to be honest and, taking that a step beyond the data, stand their ground. However, the moment they do so, we see the reason why it’s comfy to have some conformity: Gridlock by an organized block of members can bring the entire building down.

Like your politics unscrambled? Check out DCDecoder.com

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