Finally, some bipartisanship … oops, nevermind

Published 11:14 am Tuesday, December 20, 2011

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell does not high-five easily or often. But a deal to keep American workers’ taxes from rising on Jan. 1 was reason enough for the coolest negotiator in the Senate to lift a hand on camera and slap — or pat — some skin.

His celebration was premature.

Furious House Republicans said McConnell’s deal for a two-month extension of payroll tax cuts is 10 months too few. They are prepared to let everyone’s Social Security taxes rise an average $20 a week for a while if that’s what it takes to extend the cut for a year. And they are intent on dragging the vacationing Senate back to Washington to do it their way.

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“I don’t care about the political implications,” Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., said Monday.

Senate Republicans do, especially those up for re-election at a time when Americans are more apt to trust car salesmen than Congress.

“The House Republicans’ plan to scuttle the deal to help middle-class families is irresponsible and wrong,” said one, Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.

It was at least the third time in a year dominated by partisan standoffs that House conservatives, led by a nearly 90-member freshman class, brought GOP leaders up short on their plans to compromise. The first was last spring when they forced GOP leaders to rewrite spending bills to deepen federal spending cuts. Then there were objections in the summer over raising the nation’s debt limit, which brought the government to the brink of a first-ever default.

Now, the question of compromise is keeping a tax cut — the stuff of Republican dogma — hanging on the eve of the presidential and congressional election year.

At stake are Social Security payroll taxes paid by 160 million workers. President Barack Obama and the last Congress agreed to cut them by 2 percentage points a year ago, but only for a year. On Jan. 1, they go back up to 6.2 percent if Congress doesn’t act. Also, people without jobs for more than six months start losing benefits and doctors’ Medicare fees get cut by 27 percent.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, derided what he said was yet another instance of the Senate “kicking the can down the road” with only a two-month renewal of the status quo. Doing it for an entire year would mean more certainty “for job creators and others,” he said.

House Republicans huddled late into the night and planned to instead call Tuesday for formal negotiations with the Senate, rejecting the two-month version.

The dustup marked an unusual disconnect between Boehner and McConnell. Even before the 2010 elections made Boehner speaker, he and McConnell coordinated closely on tactics. This year, they’ve stayed in close contact, either by phone or by shuttling quietly between their office suites at the Capitol, their aides say.

Kentucky’s McConnell is not meek when it comes to partisan brinksmanship.

He’s vowed, for example, to use his perch as the Senate’s top Republican to deny Obama a second term. He considers cartoons mocking his hardcore negotiating style badges of honor, and posts them on his office wall. But even McConnell spoke up Saturday in favor of compromise on the payroll tax, lest another standoff drop Congress’ approval ratings the few points they have left to fall.

“In order to achieve something around here, we have to compromise,” he intoned just before the Senate’s vote Saturday on the two-month tax cut extension. “That is, in fact, what we have done. We have crafted a bill not designed to fail but designed to pass.”

It passed overwhelmingly, 89-10, and senators immediately bolted for a month-long recess, a year of sniping and ugliness finished at last — or so they thought.

House Republicans immediately balked and insisted on their one-year version, six times more expensive and paid for in part by raising Medicare premiums for people whose incomes exceed $80,000 a year. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid made clear he had no intention of calling the Senate back into session to vote on that or any other bill.

A two-month deal, the House freshmen suggested, was not worth having because it did not afford business owners and others enough time to plan. They were outraged at the Senate — including 39 of its 47 Republicans — for voting for a two-month extension.

“The Senate just needs to do its job,” said Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y. “What they sent us over was an insult to the American people.”

“That vote (in the Senate) had a lot more to do with getting out of Washington and going back home and spending time with our loved ones,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark.

So it’s all or nothing? House Republicans are prepared to let taxes rise on Jan. 1?

“We didn’t say it’s all or nothing,” Womack said.