Lawmakers leave town after rejecting Senate payroll tax cut extension

Rank-and-file lawmakers headed back to their districts Tuesday after the House rejected the Senate payroll tax extension bill and voted to set up a conference committee with the upper chamber.

The 229-193 vote, which broke mostly along party lines, added another chapter to a high-stakes political fight that could be damaging to both parties.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stuck to his demand that the House approve the two-month extension he negotiated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), meaning the House vote raises the likelihood workers will see their payroll taxes rise in January when the current tax cut expires.

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Because the payroll tax cut is coupled with a two-month extension of federal unemployment benefits and “doc fix” legislation that prevents Medicare payments to physicians from being cut, those provisions are also at risk.

After the vote, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) released a letter to President Obama urging him to call on the Senate to return to Washington and negotiate a new compromise.

“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,” Boehner wrote.

Boehner also appointed conferees to the committee and urged Democratic leaders to do the same at a news conference where he was was surrounded by dozens of House Republicans in a show of conference unity. All but seven of them had voted to reject a measure that an overwhelming majority of Senate Republicans had endorsed.


“Our negotiators are here, ready and able to work. Members of the leadership will be here, ready and able to work. We’ll be available to do what needs to be done,” Boehner said at the news conference.

But in an appearance in the White House briefing room, Obama dug in, arguing the Senate bill was the only “viable way” to prevent a tax hike.

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

The House vote was intended to put pressure on Senate Democrats to reconvene, but it is unclear who will have the upper hand in the fight in the weeks ahead.

Democrats are convinced Republicans will get the blame if the payroll tax and unemployment benefits expire because of their rejection of the Senate bill, which the upper chamber approved in an 89-10 vote.

Their confidence has been bolstered by polls showing a jump in Obama’s approval ratings, and in critical comments from some Senate Republicans.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday said the failure of the House to approve the bipartisan Senate bill to extend the payroll-tax cut is “harming the Republican Party.”

Speaking on CNN’s “Situation Room,” McCain said that while it’s inevitable that the tax cut will ultimately be extended, the infighting reflects poorly on Republicans and Congress as a whole.

“It is harming the Republican Party. It is harming the view, if it’s possible anymore, of the American people about Congress,” McCain said. “We’ve got to get this resolved and with the realization that the payroll-tax cut must remain in effect.”

House Republicans, however, think it is Democrats who will be blamed for not working with the GOP on a deal to extend the break for a year. In their talking points Tuesday, they emphasized that a conference committee was the normal process for resolving differences between the two chambers.

As predicted by Republican leaders 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.).

Just before the vote, Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) predicted that “less than five” Republicans would defect on the motion.

Democrats assailed House GOP leaders for scrapping a direct vote on the Senate bill and instead holding a procedural vote to simultaneously reject it and set up a conference committee. House Democrats immediately reintroduced the Senate bill and demanded a vote on the measure that would allow it to be sent to the president.

House Republicans said a conference committee 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.

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

Both parties offered signals that they were ready to stay in Washington to work.

While members of both parties streamed out of the Capitol after Tuesday’s votes, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) office announced Tuesday the House would be “in session as necessary” to consider the conference report, and members would be given 24 hours notice before any votes.

Democrats said they would remain in Washington throughout the Christmas holiday and spend each day demanding the GOP pass the two-month extension.

The House vote capped 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 XL oil sands pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Republicans said 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.

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 McConnell 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?”

— Bob Cusack, Amie Parmes and Erik Wasson contributed to this story.