By Russell Berman, Erik Wasson and Bernie Becker - 12/08/11 10:08 PM EST
For House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), there’s nothing like a presidential veto threat to make his job easier.
The Speaker earned positive reviews for the revised payroll tax cut package he presented to the House Republican conference Thursday, a sharp turnaround from the resistance he faced from conservatives when he first outlined his plan last week.
Republican leaders added a number of sweeteners to the package to win conservative support, but several lawmakers said that more than anything else, the turning point was President Obama’s threat on Wednesday to reject the payroll tax bill if the House attached a provision forcing administrative action on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.
“The difference between this conference and the last one was palpable,” lamented one outspoken critic of extending the payroll tax cut, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “I think a lot of it was the president and that threat.”
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) called the shift in attitude “a stunning change.”
“It was a 180-degree difference,” he told reporters.
The plan Boehner unveiled would extend the payroll tax cut, reform and extend unemployment insurance benefits and fix the Medicare reimbursement rate for doctors. He proposes to pay for those measures by extending a federal worker pay freeze, increasing fees for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and trimming certain federal and Medicare benefits for the wealthy, among other items.
In addition to the Keystone measure, the package will include provisions to delay Environmental Protection Agency regulations on industrial boilers and to restrict tax credits for illegal immigrants.
“I think the leadership put a package together that sells in much of the conference. The comments were very positive today,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said. He added: “Members want to fight for this.”
A freshman member of the leadership team, Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), had been undecided on the plan, but said after the meeting Thursday that he was leaning yes.
“I think this is a plan that unites our base in the conference in a way that few other plans have in the past,” he said.
The warm reception allowed Boehner and other leaders to predict that they would win passage of the bill, which would strengthen the House GOP’s hand in the looming confrontation with Obama and Senate Democrats.
“I think our members received the discussion very well,” Boehner told reporters after the meeting. “While I do not have the vote totals ... I am confident about our ability to move ahead.”
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) voiced confidence that Republicans could pass the bill next week.
“It will get off the floor,” he told The Hill.
Whether it will go anywhere beyond that, however, is unclear.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the GOP proposal “a partisan joke that has no chance of passing the Senate.” And Obama warned Republicans not to try to extract a price from him.
Obama responded as well: “Rather than trying to figure out what can they extract politically from me in order to get this thing done, what they need to do is be focused on what's good for the economy, what's good for jobs and what's good for the American people,” the president said at the White House.
He reiterated that he would not leave Washington for a planned Hawaii vacation until Congress passed an extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits.
“Get it done. And if not, maybe we'll have a white Christmas here in Washington,” Obama said.
A House vote on the Republican bill is expected by mid-week. The Senate on Thursday rejected another set of competing GOP and Democratic proposals, and Reid said he would work “to find common ground” on the issue in the coming days.
In the House, Republicans said Boehner tried to rally the conference around a positive message and trumpeted the party’s accomplishments over its first year in the majority. “His message was, let’s stick together,” Brady said. “Let’s advance our message together, with a strong vote.”
On the congressional schedule, the Speaker said he wanted to stick to his plan to get out of town by Dec. 16.
“His joke is there will be no cigarettes in town come the 17th,” Rep. Aaron Schock (Ill.) said, referencing the Speaker’s well-known smoking habit.
Boehner’s move could prove risky if Obama sticks to his veto threat. Republicans said some rank-and-file members were worried that the House bill would, like so many others, die in the Senate, and at least one Republican stood up in the closed-door meeting to urge the leadership to stick to its guns in the battle with the president.
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) said he is confident that if the GOP sends the bill to Obama's desk, the president would back down.
“The image of him vetoing a bill with his tax holiday in it, with an extension of unemployment insurance ... because he doesn't want to deal with Keystone pipeline until after the election is absurd,” Terry said. “And I think he'd realize that.”
Boehner did not win over all his critics, but even those opposed to the revised bill said they expected the leadership to win enough votes. He could need the strong Republican vote he is seeking, since Democratic leaders indicated they expected little support because of the controversial provisions Boehner added.
“It does send a good message, and I’d love nothing more than to stand up to the president,” Flake said of the new bill, “but we keep sending messages and we keep piling up debt, instead of doing the right thing.”
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) said he was also not yet on board. He wanted to see the final numbers of the bill and voiced concerns that because it still paid for the measure over a decade, it would exacerbate the national debt crisis and force Congress to increase the federal debt limit sooner than it planned.