WASHINGTON - Capping a full retreat by House GOP leaders, Congress will convene today in hopes of approving a stopgap measure renewing payroll tax cuts for every worker and unemployment benefits for millions - despite serious opposition among some tea party Republicans.
Today's unusual session, if all goes according to plan, will send a bill to President Barack Obama to become law for two months and put off until January a fight over how to pay for the 2 percentage point tax cut, extend jobless benefits averaging around $300 a week and prevent doctors from absorbing a big cut in Medicare payments.
Those goals had been embraced by virtually every lawmaker in the House and Senate, but had been derailed in a quarrel over demands by House Republicans for immediate negotiations on a long-term extension bill. Senate leaders of both parties had tried to barter such an agreement among themselves a week ago but failed, instead agreeing upon a 60-day measure to buy time for talks next year.
U.S. Reps. Bill Owens, left (D-Plattsburgh), and Chris Gibson (R-Kinderhook)
(Enterprise file photos)
Meanwhile, lawmakers from two North Country congressional districts are pleased the tax cut will continue for another two months, although both had wished for a full year extension.
U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, the Republican from New York's 20th Congressional District, said in an emailed statement that he voted for a comprehensive bill last week that would have extended the cuts for a full year and continued unemployment insurance, while fixing Medicare reimbursement rates.
"We did that in a way that advances pro-growth policies and fully pays for the entire package," he said. "I was disappointed that the Senate chose a 60 day measure instead, but I believe it is the right course of action to enact this stopgap measure to ensure hardworking American families do not see a tax increase on January 1. Furthermore, I am pleased that the Senate has decided to appoint conferees to reach an agreement that achieves the yearlong goal which everyone desires. The work on that legislation should begin immediately, and I am hopeful we can come to the longer-term agreement swiftly."
Gibson's Democratic colleague, U.S. Rep. Bill Owens from New York's 23rd Congressional District, said in a phone interview Thursday night that this was the best deal on the table, and he was prepared to vote on it earlier this week.
"And as you know, the Republicans pulled the bill because they realized it was going to pass and they didn't want it to," Owens said.
According to Owens, House GOP leaders faced "vehement objection" from tea party Republicans and rank-and-file members. He said some representatives wanted certain "pay-fors" in the bill.
"They weren't willing to compromise," Owens said. "The hope is now, that when we go back, people will be more reasonable in trying to resolve these issues."
The decision by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to cave in to the Senate came after days of criticism from Obama and Democrats. But perhaps more tellingly, GOP stalwarts like strategist Karl Rove and the Wall St. Journal editorial board warned that if the tax cuts were allowed to expire, Republicans would take a political beating that would harm efforts to unseat Obama next year.
Today's House and Senate sessions are remarkable. Both chambers have recessed for the holidays but leaders in both parties are trying to pass the short-term agreement under debate rules that would allow any individual member of Congress to derail the pact, at least for a time.
The developments were a clear win for Obama. The payroll tax cut was the centerpiece of his three-month, campaign-style drive for jobs legislation that seems to have contributed to an uptick in his poll numbers - and taken a toll on those of congressional Republicans.
Obama, Republicans and congressional Democrats all said they preferred a one-year extension but the politics of achieving the goal, particularly the spending cuts and new fees required to pay for it, eluded them. All pledged to start working on that in January.
"There remain important differences between the parties on how to implement these policies, and it is critical that we protect middle-class families from a tax increase while we work them out," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.
House GOP arguments about the legislative process and what the "uncertainty" of a two-month extension would mean for businesses were unpersuasive, and Obama was clearly on the offensive.
"Has this place become so dysfunctional that even when we agree to things, we can't do it?" Obama said. "Enough is enough."
The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was a driving force behind Thursday's agreement, imploring Boehner to accept the deal that McConnell and Reid had struck last week and passed with overwhelming support in both parties.
Meanwhile, tea party-backed House Republicans began to abandon their leadership.
"I don't think that my constituents should have a tax increase because of Washington's dysfunction," freshman Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., said.
If the cuts had expired as scheduled, 160 million workers would have seen a tax increase of $20 a week for an average worker earning about $50,000 a year. And up to 2 million people without jobs for six months would start losing unemployment benefits averaging $300 a week. Doctors would have seen a 27 percent cut in their Medicare payments, the product of an archaic 1997 cut that Congress has been unable to fix.
Even though GOP leaders like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., promised that the two sides could quickly iron out their differences, the truth is that it'll take intense talks to figure out both the spending cuts and fee increases required to finance the measure.