Democrats downplay leverage they know they have in fight over payroll tax cut

House Democratic leaders are downplaying talk that they have all the leverage in a tax fight with Republicans even as they insist that the GOP will need to move in their direction if a deal is going to be reached.

The Democrats noted that a lack of GOP unity in the lower chamber has forced Republican leaders to rely on Democratic votes to pass a long list budget bills this year — including several continuing resolutions and legislation to hike the debt ceiling — and suggested a similar scenario would get the payroll tax package across the finish line before Christmas.

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"Talk is cheap," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Friday. "When President Bush said the country was in trouble, Democrats responded in a bipartisan way. When the Republicans couldn't keep government running without our help, they got our help. The second time they couldn't keep government running without our help, we gave them our help. They couldn't make sure that America paid its debts, paid its bills, [and] Democrats helped.

"Democrats have shown — not just talked about it — have shown that we are prepared" to cross the aisle, Hoyer added.

Still, with rank-and-file Republicans revolting against an extension of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits, the Democrats are well aware that GOP leaders will likely need their help to pass the package.

With that in mind, Democratic leaders — even if they're not pushing too hard for more items on their own legislative wish list — are rejecting the Republicans' move to attach conservative provisions to expedite the Keystone oil pipeline decision and kill environmental protections.

"So far we haven't heard anything that even sounds like a serious attempt at a bipartisan compromise," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The comments arrive as leaders in both parties are racing to finalize legislation to extend the payroll tax holiday, extend unemployment benefits and protect Medicare payments to doctors. The process hit several barriers late this week, when the Senate blocked two competing payroll tax proposals — a central plank of President Obama's jobs platform — and a number of House Republicans pushed back on extending the same payroll tax cut extension.

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The episode highlights the Republican division that's plagued GOP leaders all year, as a number of Tea Party backed conservatives have held a hard line on federal spending, even in some cases when GOP leaders have backed those bills.

Asked about the GOP's dilemma Friday, Pelosi quipped, "I'm not an expert on disarray in the Republican Caucus."

Vowing "to cooperate on behalf of the welfare of our country," Hoyer suggested Democrats would step in to secure passage of the package in the House. The real fight, Hoyer added, will likely be in the Senate.

"Leverage is not the issue, votes are the issue," Hoyer said. "Unfortunately, the Senate requires a supermajority to do anything, to put a bill on the floor requires 60 votes. … That's a dysfunctional body."

Pelosi vowed to remain in Washington until a deal is sealed.

"We cannot go home for Christmas until we pass this legislation," Pelosi said. "The clock is ticking."