December 21, 2011 in Nation/World

Clock ticks on payroll tax break

GOP quarrels after House rejects bipartisan bill passed by Senate
Lisa Mascaro And Kathleen Hennessey Tribune Washington bureau
 
Payroll tax cut
  • What’s at stake: The prospect that payroll taxes would rise and long-term unemployment benefits end for millions of jobless Americans.
  • What’s next: House Republicans sought immediate negotiations with the Senate on a yearlong plan. The current tax break expires Dec. 31.

WASHINGTON – The Senate is gone, the House is packing up, and for now that means working Americans will see their taxes rise in January.

After weeks of bitter partisan wrangling, the Capitol emptied for the holidays with no sign of negotiation toward a compromise that would save an expiring tax break. As of Jan. 1, the payroll tax cut that has been in place all year is scheduled to return to 6.2 percent from its current 4.2 percent, meaning that biweekly paychecks on average will be $40 smaller. Long-term unemployment benefits for 3 million people also are poised to expire, and doctors face an estimated 20 percent cut in Medicare payments.

Facing that unpleasant reality, Republicans fell into an angry family feud over their strategy. Several GOP senators who face re-election next year accused their House GOP colleagues of acting irresponsibly. The House voted to disagree with the bipartisan bill the Senate had passed to preserve the tax cut for two months so Congress would have more time to work on a full-year extension.

Democrats, meanwhile, were happy to accuse Republicans of voting to block a tax cut and leaving town without finishing their work – the same argument Republicans planned to use on them.

“The issue right now is this: The clock is ticking; time is running out,” President Barack Obama said in a statement at the White House after the vote. “And if the House Republicans refuse to vote for the Senate bill, or even allow it to come up for a vote, taxes will go up in 11 days.”

This was not a fight that seasoned Republican lawmakers, most prominent among them House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, would have chosen. They see no value in having Americans think Republicans are allowing a tax increase, a message the White House continues to broadcast daily.

Finding compromise on a full-year deal would require consensus on the same tax and spending debates that have jammed budget talks all year. Democrats will not agree to steep cuts the GOP has demanded to pay the $200 billion costs of a yearlong tax cut package that both parties say they want. Unlike past tax deals, the GOP insists this one be paid for – a position Democrats now share.

Because Republicans refused to consider Obama’s proposal to cover the costs by imposing a surtax on those earning more than $1 million annually, Democrats see the GOP in the uncomfortable position of blocking a tax increase on the affluent while allowing one on 160 million American workers. If the tax benefit lapses, they calculate that Republicans will get the blame.

“I saw today that one of the House Republicans referred to what they’re doing as ‘high-stakes poker,’ ” said Obama, who appeared at the daily White House briefing. “He’s right about the stakes, but this is not poker, this is not a game – this shouldn’t be politics as usual.”

Obama, whose family is in Hawaii for the holidays, delayed joining them by another day, with aides saying he held out hope that House Republicans would reconsider the Senate measure.

Boehner also tried to use his megaphone. At a news conference with members lined up on a riser like a church choir, the speaker urged Obama to call the Senate back into session.

“Now, it’s up to the president to show real leadership,” Boehner said. At one point, the lawmakers cheered.

Republicans believe they are fighting the good fight. They say they prefer the traditional process of merging differing House- and Senate-passed bills into one.

The GOP appointed eight negotiators to work over the holidays in hopes that the Senate would return to the bargaining table. Some other House members planned to remain in Washington as a show of support, even as most of their colleagues defended decisions to head home for the holidays.

But with senators long gone, Democrats showed no signs of budging. House Republicans, too, remained adamant.


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