GOP vies for high ground on taxes

House Democratic leaders are urging their members to vote against the GOP’s payroll tax bill Tuesday, forcing Republicans to pass the high-priority legislation largely on their own.

Republicans are confident they can carry the vote, and with it, claw back some of the advantage they lost to Democrats on taxes in the past several weeks.

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They expect some defections, but Democrats could lose some votes as well. Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), a senior member of the Blue Dog Democrat coalition, announced Monday he would support the bill.

“I do believe it’s going to pass with bipartisan support,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Monday in a brief news conference.

The vote will complicate the political messaging on the payroll tax cut. 

Democrats have put Republicans on the defensive over the issue, but members will now have to explain a vote against a bill that carries two of President Obama’s year-end priorities — a one-year extension of the payroll tax cut and an extension of unemployment insurance benefits.

To win over reluctant Republicans, Boehner added a number of provisions backed by conservatives. The most notable would force a fast-track decision by the Obama administration on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. Obama has said he would “reject” a GOP attempt to package pipeline legislation with the payroll tax cut.

Republican leaders have noted that 47 House Democrats have voted in favor of the Keystone pipeline, and Boren, who is retiring next year, cited the provision in announcing his support.

“At a time when many are without work, it is time that we come together in a bipartisan way to pass this legislation which will create tens of thousands of new jobs. I commend the Speaker for including the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that is supported by business and labor,” Boren said in a statement that was flagged by Boehner’s office. 

“I also believe that this bill should attract votes from both political parties, because it takes initiatives supported by President Obama, including the payroll tax cut extension and the extension of unemployment benefits, while also including initiatives supported by congressional Republicans, like freezing federal worker pay.”

A spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Democrats are whipping their members against the bill, although several aides said it was unclear how many Democrats would break away and vote with Republicans.

While GOP leaders have predicted the bill would pass, conservatives such as Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) plan to vote no. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called the Keystone provision a “poison pill,” and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said it “will not pass the Senate.”

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Congress is trying to reach agreement on the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits before it adjourns for the year.

The Senate has rejected a series of Democratic and Republican proposals, and it’s not clear whether Reid will take up the House bill and try to amend it or whether Democrats will try to advance a difference proposal. Both chambers are hoping to leave town at the end of the week, although weekend sessions are possible.

Boehner said he thought the House bill would have “a good shot” in the Senate and declined to predict what would happen if the upper chamber sent back a competing payroll tax measure. Senate Democrats want to pay for an extension of the payroll tax holiday with a surtax on millionaires that Republicans oppose.

Democrats take issue with other aspects of the House GOP legislation, including a provision delaying environmental regulations, changes in Medicare and to the unemployment insurance program and attempts to repeal funding for Obama’s signature healthcare law. The Speaker countered, however, that “90 percent” of the offsets in the Republican bill have come from proposals backed by the Obama administration.

“I don’t see any real objections to the pay-fors that are in our bill,” Boehner told reporters. He said the Keystone provision had passed approval “at every level” and criticized the Obama administration for insisting on an “arbitrary” delay of the pipeline approval process until after the 2012 election.

“The American people want jobs, and this is as close to a shovel-ready jobs plan as you’re ever going to see,” Boehner said.

The Speaker did not address the deficit impact of the legislation, which the Congressional Budget Office assessed on Friday. The CBO said that under the standards it uses to score legislation, the GOP bill would add $25.3 billion to the deficit. 

But Republicans say that does not count the $26.2 billion in reduced spending that would take place under provisions that lower the future discretionary spending caps agreed to by both parties in the summer debt-ceiling talks. CBO acknowledges the spending cuts, but because they require future legislation to implement, it does not take them into account in its official score.

Boehner has said that everything in the payroll tax package must be paid for.

— Pete Kasperowicz contributed to this report.