In payroll tax battle, GOP shows cracks under Democratic pressure

Democrats are ramping up the pressure on House Republicans over their refusal to pass a payroll tax deal – and some Senate Republicans are not rushing to their colleagues' aid. 

Evan Vucci/AP
Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio speaks to the media before a meeting with the conference committee on the payroll tax cut on Wednesday in Washington.

After a year of clashes on Capitol Hill over trillion-dollar deficits, 40 is suddenly the biggest number in congressional politics, as Democrats and House Republicans clash over a payroll-tax cut and other measures set to expire on Jan. 1.

Forty dollars is the average drop that some 160 million Americans will see in their paychecks, if Congress doesn’t act.

A White House call for responses to what a $40 tax hike means to families produced thousands of tweets in just 24 hours. Replies included: “nearly a tank of gas,” “feeding my family for three nights,” “two months of vet care,” “co-pay for prescription drugs,” and “default on my mortgage, so I can feed my son.”

With just 10 days before the payroll tax “holiday” and other measures expire, the cost to American families of gridlock as usual on Capitol Hill is immediate and personal. Democrats and the White House are counting on public outrage to force Speaker John Boehner – and the tea-party backed conservatives who pushed GOP leaders to take on this fight – to cave.

“The average Republican House member is going to hear from their constituents, and the pressure to come back and pass our bill is just going to increase,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.

“If it’s really a one-year deal you want, so do we,” he added. “We will be the first ones on a plane to work out a one-year deal but on one condition: First pass the Senate’s two-month agreement, then we can negotiate right away and maybe have the whole thing done by New Years.”

In a bid to dramatize the impasse, House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer and Rep. Chris van Hollen (D) of Maryland took to the House floor in a bid to pass the Senate bill by unanimous consent. They were gaveled down at the start of a pro forma session that only lasted a few minutes.

“The House Republican leadership never even allowed a vote on the bipartisan Senate bill,” says Mr. Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “The reason they didn’t allow a vote was that they knew it would pass on a bipartisan vote.”

The payroll tax impasse began on Tuesday, as House Republicans rejected a Senate bill that would have extended the payroll tax and other expiring provisions for two months, on a party-line vote, 229 to 193. The Senate bill, which passed 89 to 10, also extended expiring federal benefits for jobless workers and blocked a 27.4 percent drop in payments to doctors serving Medicare patients, set to take hold on Jan. 1.

Speaker Boehner called for Senate Democrats to return to Washington to work out differences with the House. He called on President Obama to help persuade Democrats to come to the table.

But on Wednesday, the Speaker and eight negotiators appointed to conference with Senate Democrats met at an empty table and under a hail of criticism.

  • The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page dubbed the payroll tax strategy “a fiasco.” 
  • Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona retweeted the WSJ editorial  to his 1.7 million followers.
  • Senate Republicans stepped up public criticism of House GOP leaders for blocking a bipartisan solution to the impasse, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, since Sunday, went silent.

“We are here in Washington working today because we want to make sure that the middle class and working families of this country have some certainty that their taxes will not go up for the entirety of next year,” said House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia, at a photo op at the start of Wednesday’s meeting.

“Frankly, that's the only issue with which we differ with the Senate. And we're asking, as the Speaker said, for the Senate majority leader to appoint conferees to come join us to try and finish the work for the American people before the end of the year,” he added.

Senate Republican leaders and eight members appointed to serve on the conference committees say they are committed to staying in Washington to find a solution. But House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi or Senate majority leader Harry Reid say they will not appoint conferees or negotiate with the House until the House votes to accept the Senate measure.

In a letter on Wednesday, Senator Reid again called on the House to take up the Senate bill. “Because we have a responsibility to assure middle-class families that their taxes will not go up while we work out our differences, we must pass this immediate extension first,” he wrote.

Summing up how Democrats view House GOP leverage on this issue, Senator Schumer told reporters today: “They’re at the end of the rope.”

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