House rebuffs Senate payroll tax cut extension, calls for conference

The House voted Tuesday to disagree with the Senate-passed payroll tax cut extension bill and call for a House-Senate conference to sort out differences between the bills.

The move is intended to put pressure on Senate Democrats to reconvene and meet with the House over the bill, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) quickly after the vote said he would not agree to negotiations on a yearlong extension unless the House approved the Senate tax bill negotiated by leaders from both parties in the chamber. 

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President Obama called the Senate bill the only "viable way" to prevent a tax hike in an appearance in the White House briefing room shortly after the vote. 

"The clock is ticking, time is running out," he said. "Taxes will go up in 11 days." 

"This is not a game," Obama said. "This shouldn't be politics as usual."

The House vote raises the likelihood that workers will see their payroll taxes rise in January when the current tax cut expires. Since the payroll tax cut is coupled with a two-month extensions of federal unemployment benefits and "doc fix" legislation that prevents Medicare payments to physicians from being cut, those provisions are also at risk.



Members of both parties hinted that they could return to Washington early next month, and strike a deal that retroactively implements the tax cut, Medicare reimbursement and unemployment benefits. But for the moment, Congress is not expected to be in session until mid-January.

Democrats are convinced Republicans will get the blame if those benefits expire because of their rejection of the Senate bill, while Republicans think it is Democrats who will be blamed for not working with the GOP on a deal to extend the break for a year. The GOP has emphasized that Democrats in the Senate should end their vacation, while Democrats have emphasized the bipartisan nature of the Senate vote.

The White House and Democrats might feel they are correct because of new polls released Tuesday by The Washington Post and CNN that show Obama's approval ratings rising. The polls suggest Obama is gaining strength from the tax issue, while it is weakening support for Republicans. 

As predicted by Republican leaders on Sunday, the motion to disagree with the Senate was approved with the support of nearly every Republican. The motion passed 229-193, with only seven Republicans voting against it and no Democrats supporting it. 

Republicans voting against the motion were Reps. Charlie Bass (N.H.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.), Chris Gibson (N.Y.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Tim Johnson (Ill.) and Frank Wolf (Va.).

Reid quickly signaled he would not change his position on negotiations with a statement released after the vote. 

"I have been trying to negotiate a yearlong extension with Republicans for weeks, and I am happy to continue doing so as soon as the House of Representatives passes the bipartisan compromise to protect middle-class families, but not before then,” the statement said. 

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), for his part, released a letter to Obama urging him to call on the Senate to return to Washington and negotiate a new compromise. 

“I ask you to call on the Senate to return to appoint negotiators so that we can provide the American people the economic certainty they need,” Boehner wrote. “The American people need leadership, Mr. President. I hope you will call on the Senate to do the right thing and work with us to pass a bill to extend payroll tax relief for a full year before December 31, 2011.”

Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have said they would not appoint negotiators to a conference committee.

Before Obama arrived at the briefing room, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Republicans had voted to raise taxes, and accused Senate and House Republicans of being at odds with one another. 

Asked if Obama should negotiate with Boehner, Carney replied: "The issue here isn't negotiating with the Speaker of the House. ... The disagreement here is not between the Speaker and the president." He said it's not the president's responsibility to act as a "marriage counselor" between Republicans in the two chambers.

Asked if the president would still travel to Hawaii if Congress left town, Carney said, "The president is here and is very focused on the need for Congress to take the appropriate action" so that Americans don't have their taxes go up. 

"The president intends to stay and work with Congress," Carney said. "But let's be clear on where the power to make that happen resides. 

"This is not a game," Carney said. "For people struggling to make ends meet, 1,000 dollars is a big deal." 

House Republicans say a conference is the best way to resolve the differences between the two bills — the House bill calls for a yearlong extension of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance, and pays for those extensions through reforms to these programs and further cuts to discretionary spending.

The Senate bill, which 39 Senate Republicans supported last week in an 89-10 vote, extends the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance for two months and pays for those extensions by increasing fees mortgage holders would pay to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. 

Before the vote, Republicans called on the Senate to return and allow a conference meeting to happen again to finalize a tax bill. "There's no reason the House, the Senate and the president cannot spend the next two weeks working to get that done," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said.

Cantor and other Republicans have noted that Obama favors extending the tax break for a year. But because Boehner said the House would not accept the Senate bill, the White House has pressed Republicans to agree to the two-month extension.

The House vote caps a stunning few days on the payroll tax fight. 

After Senate leaders reached a deal to extend the tax break for two months, it initially appeared the legislation would clear both chambers. The deal was seen as a victory for Republicans, who had forced the White House to agree to language it said would force the president to reject development of the Keystone oil sands pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Republicans say the pipeline would create thousands of jobs and were happy to either get it started or force the president to make a painful political choice to kill it.

But House Republicans objected to the two-month deal, saying they did not want to kick the can down the road when it came to the tax cut. They voiced their opposition during a Saturday conference call. 

A day later, Boehner said his conference would not accept a two-month extension.

Boehner on Saturday told his House GOP colleagues, "We have to pick our fights," according a Republican lawmaker who was on the call. The legislator said that comment was interpreted as support for the Senate measure, but added Boehner did not explicitly endorse it. 

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) on Tuesday emphatically said Boehner did not back the Senate bill during the teleconference.

Democrats railed that GOP leaders had initially accepted the Senate bill as a short-term compromise but then turned on it after conservative Republicans revolted. Pelosi said the GOP decision goes against Boehner's decision to let Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) work out a deal.

"I thought the Speaker said that this was a victory after it passed in the Senate," Pelosi said. "He was the one who instructed Harry Reid, insisted that Sen. Reid have a discussion with Mitch McConnell. Was that just a farce, too?"

After the House vote, members moved to consider two related measures. One is a Democratic motion to instruct House conferees on the tax bill, and the other is a resolution supporting House GOP priorities for the bill.

House lawmakers are getting ready to leave Washington after the series of votes on Tuesday. The Senate has already left for the holidays.

— Russell Berman, Bob Cusack and Erik Wasson contributed to this story.

This story was posted at 12:57 p.m. and updated at 5:51 p.m.

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