Why This Congressional Chaos Is Not About to End
(by Matthew Cooper, National Journal, December 19, 2011)
When it comes to the end-of-session loggerheads, what's important to understand is that Congress isn't simply "dysfunctional," as it's blithely labeled, but it's being torn by forces that are real, historic, and unlikely to abate even with the 2012 election.
On Friday it seemed plausible to think that Congress was done for the year, save for House approval of extending the payroll-tax cut and unemployment insurance—but there were hints of surging discontent.
Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., on Friday said that he "couldn't imagine close to full support" in the House for a two-month extension.
On Saturday, annoyed House Republicans revealed the extent of their anger in a call in which they made clear to Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, what they had told House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Friday: A two-month extension is a cop-out.
Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., later said: "I can't accept the Senate version of the bill and I think the majority of us Republicans can't accept it."
By Sunday, the speaker had gotten the message. He declared that Congress should assemble a formal conference committee to hash out a deal in regular order.
"We've got to two weeks to get this done," Boehner said on Meet the Press. "Let's do it the right way."
That didn't sit well with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Reid negotiated the deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after Boehner departed the talks, challenging the Senate leaders to produce a plan.
"When we met last week, Speaker Boehner requested that Senator McConnell and I work out a compromise," Reid stated. "Neither side got everything they wanted, but we forged a middle ground that passed the Senate by an overwhelming bipartisan majority."
Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson later said that Reid "is happy to continue negotiating a yearlong extension as soon as the House passes the Senate's short-term, bipartisan compromise."
McConnell, caught between supporting a deal he brokered and standing by Boehner, struck a middle ground in his post-deal breakdown statement.
"The House and Senate have both passed bipartisan bills to require the President to finally make a decision on the Keystone XL jobs," McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said. "The House and the President both want a full-year extension. The best way to resolve the difference … is through regular order, as the Speaker suggested."
The emerging consensus among Republicans is to take the Senate's two-month bill and the House's one-year measure to conference and fight over the extension's duration and how to pay for it. House Republicans believe they extracted a huge concession from Senate Democrats when they dropped the "millionaire's surtax" as the payment method. A senior House GOP aide familiar with the emerging strategy summarized the situation thusly: "We have to get out of the cul-de-sac of the Senate only being able to produce the lowest-common denominator and then trying to force a terrible product on the House."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is known for not mincing words, went after Boehner's integrity in a statement.
"He made public comments promising to live by whatever agreement the Senate reached," Schumer said. Boehner "said, ‘If the Senate acts, I'm committed to bringing the House back—we can do it within 24 hours—to deal with whatever the Senate does.' The Senate came to a deal, and now Speaker Boehner must keep his word."
The showdown is just the latest battle in a larger war where skirmishes over smaller issues mask a larger divide. And so the fight last spring over the government shutdown got jammed up on small bits of discretionary spending and a GOP attempt to remove all federal funding from Planned Parenthood. The summer's debt-ceiling crisis was all about cutting spending — resulting in the creation of that now infamous failure, the super committee.
This time, issues from the Keystone XL pipeline to riders on Cuban travel were irresistible chances for a barroom fight. Congress is divided not because it's dyspeptic but because districts are more partisan than ever. And even when they're not, members live in such fear of primary challenges that they hew to their party's I.D. rather than go with their own moderate instincts. They've seen the likes of former Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, become road kill.
So many forces are converging to make end-of-sessions more and more painful. Without this freshman class, there would have been no showdown over the debt ceiling. Their volatility combined with a broken committee process, the end of earmarks—which had a way of smoothing over differences—and a willingness by all sides to use extraordinary means, especially the GOP's flamboyant use of the filibuster, all led to this December stalemate. At a certain point, Congress begins to resemble the drunkard at last call, torn between wanting to go home and having a compelling need to stay.
Quote:Why This Congressional Chaos Is Not About to End
............ At a certain point, Congress begins to resemble the drunkard at last call, torn between wanting to go home and having a compelling need to stay.
(SUSAN HOGAN, Opinion Essay, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, December 20, 2011)
Never assume that any deal cut with U.S. House Speaker John Boehner is solid. That’s because time and time again, he’s gone back on his word.
He did it with the budget bill that turned into a rancorous battle earlier this year. That ended with the downgrading of the U.S. credit rating.
Now, he’s doing it with extensions on payroll tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year. Without the extension, many Americans will see their paychecks shrink by $1,000.
The U.S. Senate, on the other hand, put aside partisanship Saturday to vote 89-10 to extend the cuts for another two months. Boehner, however, allegedly flip-flopped on an agreement to go along with the compromise.
Now, the GOP is reportedly refusing to let the matter be put to a vote in the House. Some say that’s because leaders fear the bill would receive bipartisan support and pass, as it did in the Senate.
Boehner says the two-month deal is no solution and that a one-year extension is needed. He’s right, but he’s also grandstanding.
When given the opportunity to pass a one-year extension last week, House Republicans tacked on partisan anti-environment, anti-health care riders instead of simply passing a no-strings attached bill.
Those riders included a provision that forces the Obama administration to make a decision on the controversial Keystone KL oil pipeline in 60 days. The GOP is making exaggerated claims about the number of jobs the pipeline would create.
Boehner’s brinksmanship is tiresome. At a time when they least need it, the middle class is on the brink of seeing tax increases because of the speaker’s shenanigans.
House GOP Finds Itself out on a Limb
(By John Stanton and Daniel Newhauser, Roll Call, December 21, 2011)
House Republicans today found themselves increasingly isolated in their high-stakes game of chicken over a payroll tax cut extension as Democrats, the White House and even Senate Republicans were all increasingly critical of their intransigence.
As the standoff slowly ground through its fourth day, Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) continued to see support erode for his Conference’s opposition to extending the payroll tax cut for an additional two months to give Congress more time to work out a longer extension.
Boehner awoke to harsh words from the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which bluntly wrote that “Republicans have thoroughly botched the politics” of the payroll fight, adding that “At this stage, Republicans would do best to cut their losses and find a way to extend the payroll holiday quickly.”
Later, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) — the only Senate Republican who had come to the defense of House Republicans — acknowledged on CNBC that their opposition was turning into a political nightmare.
Corker called it “one more public policy blunder. ... Probably at this point, the best thing to do is to figure out a way to get this behind us and move on and hopefully at some point, figure out a way to begin dealing with the real issues that our country needs to deal with.”
Although Corker would later in the day attempt to walk back his comments, the damage was done, and a flood of Senate GOP leadership and rank-and-file aides began taking their own shots at Boehner, criticizing everything from how he conducted himself in talks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to how he has handled the politics of the showdown.
“If you’re going to have a standoff, have a standoff,” one exasperated veteran GOP Senate said, adding that while Boehner continues to insist he warned McConnell he would not back the two-month deal, “The House guys signed off on this. McConnell wouldn’t have done this if he hadn’t.”
The Senate aide also sympathized with Boehner, arguing that his Conference has put him in a difficult position and that given the vitriolic rhetoric, it’s unclear whether Boehner could cave on the issue even if he wanted to at this point.
“They could have before; I don’t know if they can now,” the aide added.
The entire day wasn’t filled with friendly fire for Boehner, however, as the Speaker appeared at meeting of his picks for a conference committee that has yet to materialize. Influential radio host Rush Limbaugh came out in support of him and launched a harsh attack against the Wall Street Journal editorial board’s conservative credentials.
Later in the afternoon in an at-times-fawning interview, radio host Michael Medved effused over Boehner, calling him “the real leader” of the United States and praising his handling of the fight.
Medved also gave Boehner plenty of space to make his case, which Boehner took full advantage of.
“We are the party of tax cutters, we have been for 30 years and that’s not going to change,” said Boehner, who insisted his entire Conference supports an extension of the payroll tax cut and that the divisions in Washington are relatively minor squabbles over how to pay for it.
Medved also gave Boehner time to shoot down Democratic complaints that he manufactured the crisis as part of a broader political strategy. “No, Michael, no,” the Speaker said with a chuckle.
But Democrats continued to pressure House Republicans to take up the Senate-approved, two-month compromise. Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) pointed to the concessions his party already made, including language expediting an administration decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
“We even swallowed hard and put this oil pipeline in there,” Schumer said on a press call, adding that Republicans needed to move on the already-passed bill before negotiators can discuss a full-year measure.
“The first thing that they have to do to show their good faith is pass the two-month extension,” he said.
Without a show of good faith, Democrats are reveling in the opportunity to force wedges into the GOP ranks.
Sensing Democrats have Republicans on the ropes, House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said, “It’s not a fight between Republicans and Democrats. ... What you have here is a fight between the Republican right and the Republican far right.”
Similarly, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) dismissed the notion of a conference committee at all, arguing that “the irony is that the Speaker has appointed five [Members] ... all of whom have said at one point or another they oppose” an extension of the payroll tax cut.
Schumer piled on, calling Republicans’ conference committee a “charade” on a phone call with reporters today and said the House should instead hold an up-or-down vote on the Senate-passed bill.
“It’s hard to take that idea seriously when the Speaker’s conferees are all opponents of the payroll tax cut,” he said. “I feel for Speaker Boehner because he didn’t choose this path; the extreme bloc within his caucus did, but they’re far down a dead-end path.”
Meanwhile, in a letter to Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote that Democrats have already compromised by dropping a surtax on millionaires and called once again for the House to vote on the Senate-passed bill.
“There is still time to call the House back and pass the short-term extension bill that received 89 bipartisan votes in the U.S. Senate,” she wrote. “I am hopeful that reason will prevail in your Conference and that we can secure a bipartisan, long-term bill after the first of the year.”
Former Bush adviser Karl Rove said he agreed with the Wall Street Journal’s blistering assessment on the failure of House Republican leadership in the payroll-tax debate, and conceded that Republicans have “lost the optics” and should fold on the issue. The Hill
"The House and Senate have both passed bipartisan bills to require the President to quickly make a decision on whether to support thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs through the Keystone XL pipeline, and to extend unemployment insurance, the temporary payroll tax cut and seniors' access to medical care. There is no reason why Congress and the President cannot accomplish all of these things before the end of the year. House Republicans sensibly want greater certainty about the duration of these provisions, while Senate Democrats want more time to negotiate the terms. These goals are not mutually exclusive. We can and should do both. Working Americans have suffered enough from the President's failed economic policies and shouldn't face the uncertainty of a New Year's Day tax hike. Leader Reid should appoint conferees on the long-term bill and the House should pass an extension that locks in the thousands of Keystone XL pipeline jobs, prevents any disruption in the payroll tax holiday or other expiring provisions, and allows Congress to work on a solution for the longer extensions."
Congress passes payroll tax cut extension
(By Alan Silverleib and Tom Cohen, CNN, December 23, 2011)
Washington -- Both chambers of Congress passed an amended version of the two-month payroll tax cut extension Friday, sending the measure to President Barack Obama's desk and handing Democrats a hard-fought victory on an issue -- taxes -- that has historically favored their Republican counterparts.
The measure cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives by unanimous consent, a procedural move allowing the measure to pass even though most members of Congress are now home for the holidays.
Among other things, the measure also includes a two-month extension of emergency federal unemployment benefits and the so-called "doc fix," a delay in scheduled pay cuts to Medicare physicians.
President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill shortly, wrapping up a legislative year marked by repeated partisan brinksmanship and declining public approval of a seemingly dysfunctional Congress.
Obama is also expected to sign a separate appropriations bill funding the government through September 2012, before heading off to Hawaii to join his family for the holiday break.
House and Senate members will resume negotiations on a year-long extension of the tax cut -- along with a lengthier unemployment benefits extension and doc fix -- when Congress reconvenes in January.
Political analysts believe that the showdown over the payroll tax cut has eroded GOP strength on the party's core issue of lower taxes. While GOP leaders first questioned the merit of the tax holiday and then complained that a short-term extension would be more trouble than it's worth, Obama used the standoff to portray the Republicans as defenders of the rich with a callous attitude toward the burdens of the middle class.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, finally succumbed Thursday to calls from across the political spectrum for House Republicans to stop blocking congressional approval of the two-month extension, which had been previously approved by the Senate in overwhelming bipartisan fashion.
Boehner, in announcing the deal to reporters late Thursday, insisted the House GOP's prior opposition to the Senate plan was the right thing to do, even if it turned out to be politically questionable.
"It may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world," Boehner said, but the end result was "we were able to fix what came out of the Senate."
The speaker also acknowledged the pressure he was under, saying: "I talked to enough members over the last 24 hours who say we don't like the two-month extension and if you can get this fixed, why not do the right thing for the American people even if it's not exactly what we want."
Thursday's agreement produced essentially the same proposal House Republicans rejected from the Senate earlier this week. House Republicans were given slim political cover through the addition of legislative language designed to ease the administrative burden on small businesses implementing the plan, as well as a commitment to continue negotiations on a one-year extension of the payroll tax cut and other benefits.
While the two-month extension was shorter than desired, Obama repeatedly urged congressional leaders over the past week to follow through on their stated intention to negotiate a one-year extension that all parties now publicly claim to favor.
Under the deal, the payroll tax will remain at the current 4.2% rate instead of reverting to the 6.2% rate it was at before the cut enacted last year. Without congressional action, the higher rate would have returned in 2012, meaning an average $1,000 tax increase for 160 million Americans. The typical worker's take home salary would have been reduced by about $40 per pay period without the tax cut.
A tea party-led House GOP uprising last weekend caused Boehner to initially reject the Senate's two-month plan, instead pushing for an immediate 12-month extension and setting up this week's political showdown in the final days before the payroll tax cut was set to expire. Critics of the House GOP's stance insisted that the Senate's shorter extension was necessary to give negotiators more time to hammer out a deal over how to pay for the continuation.
By the time Thursday rolled around, however, the speaker was ready to raise the white flag of surrender. According to GOP sources, Boehner held a conference call Thursday afternoon with his fellow House Republicans in which the speaker refused to allow any members to ask questions or raise objections. One Republican House member on the call described Boehner as "tired and ticked off."
Analysts said Boehner had little choice but to back down.
"It became increasingly obvious he had to fold," said CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen, using poker terminology. Boehner was under "intense pressure from senior Republicans" over a situation that "became so botched," he said.
Darrell West , the vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said the issue has worked in the favor of Democrats because they had Republicans "seemingly willing to accept a tax increase" by opposing the Senate extension of the payroll tax cut.
Boehner's stance drew sharp criticism, including an editorial this week in the conservative Wall Street Journal that said House Republicans had lost the political advantage of advocating tax cuts to Obama and the Democrats.
On Thursday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, publicly called for Boehner to accept a short-term extension. Similar statements by other conservative Republicans showed the tide turning against the speaker and his GOP lieutenants.
Conservative Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wisconsin, was among those adding his voice to GOP calls for House Republicans to relent in their standoff.
"While I would prefer a year-long tax holiday, I refuse to let anyone play games with my constituents who stand to face a significant tax hike if we don't act," Duffy said Thursday in a statement. "That's why I will support any option to extend the payroll tax cut."
A number of Republicans have said the party should have declared victory after winning an agreement by Obama -- as part of the payroll tax cut package -- to make a decision within the next 60 days on whether to proceed with the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Republicans and some Democratic union leaders say the controversial pipeline will create thousands of new jobs; critics question its environmental impact.