With payroll-tax cut, House GOP aims to force senators back to Capitol

The House will vote Tuesday on requiring senators, who have left for the holidays, to negotiate differences in legislation to extend the payroll-tax cut and other measures set to expire on Jan. 1.

Susan Walsh/AP
The US Capitol in Washington on Tuesday. Partisan to the core, Congress careened toward a holiday-season standoff on legislation to prevent a payroll-tax hike for 160 million workers on Jan. 1.

It’s over when it’s over.

That’s the message House Republicans are sending to the Senate, as they vote Tuesday to require senators to return to the Capitol to negotiate differences with the House over legislation to extend the payroll-tax cut and other measures set to expire on Jan. 1.

Only after both House and Senate negotiators agree – and that agreement passes in both the House and Senate – would a compromise package be sent to the White House for the president’s signature.

In fact, Senate Republicans and Democrats have already agreed. In a big, bipartisan vote on Saturday, the Senate passed a two-month extension of the payroll-tax cut, as well as expiring long-term unemployment benefits and a “fix” to block a payment cut to physicians serving Medicare patients.

Then, senators left town with an agreement to end legislative business for the year and plans to return on Jan. 23.

 In Tuesday’s votes, House Republican leaders aim to force the senators back, while avoiding an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill itself.

“Our members do not want to just punt and do a two-month, short-term fix where we have to come back and do this again,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters after a two-hour caucus meeting Monday night. “We’re here. We’re willing to work.”

Senate leaders say they will not return to the Capitol, so the House must pass the Senate bill or take the blame for raising taxes in a recession.

It would be “unconscionable” for the House to reject a bipartisan agreement to protect 160 million workers from a tax hike on Jan. 1, said Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, in a statement Monday.

Speaker Boehner should allow an up-or-down vote on the compromise that [Senate Republican leader Mitch] McConnell and I negotiated at Speaker Boehner’s request, and which was supported by 89 Republican and Democratic senators,” he added.

In a late-night meeting Monday of the House Rules Committee, Democrats pushed hard for an up-or-down vote on the Senate deal on its merits – a vote that sends the bill directly to the Oval Office, if just 26 Republicans broke ranks to vote with Democrats.

"I don't see what we lose by passing the Senate compromise," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts. "It gives us two months to pass a year-long compromise."

Rep. David Dreier (R) of California, who chairs the Rules Committee, said that a vote to call for further negotiations, or a conference on the Senate bill, is in effect a vote on that bill. Republicans prevailed on a party-line vote, 8 to 4.

In comments to the press Monday evening, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said that GOP leaders were blocking a straight, up-or-down vote on the Senate plan because “they’re afraid that their members are not going to stick with them on voting against the tax cut, because I do not believe that all of the Republicans in that caucus are against a payroll-tax cut.”

The decision to buck the Senate and demand further negotiations came after Boehner held a conference call with House Republicans on Saturday. There, conservatives, including many tea party-backed freshmen, pushed leaders to keep fighting for elements in the House bill, including a commitment to pay for expiring measures by spending cuts alone.

Conservatives are also holding out for “reforms” in long-term federal unemployment insurance, including rolling back the maximum number of weeks of assistance from 99 weeks to 54 weeks, while allowing states to require drug tests of recipients.

Responding to criticism that House Republicans are requiring Senate Democrats to “negotiate twice,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in an e-mail: “The Senate did produce a bill, and today Republicans will move to conference to reconcile the two measures.”

He added, “That’s how Congress works, and we see no reason to stray from regular order. This is the system our Founders gave us, so let’s take the next 10 days and make it work.”

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