By Mike Lillis - 01/26/12 10:15 PM EST
A senior Democrat on the payroll tax conference panel had some strong words Thursday for Republicans hoping to attach Keystone pipeline language to the package.
"That is so stupid, already, for them to be pushing the Keystone pipeline issue in this bill, in this conference," Rep. Henry Waxman told reporters gathered near the Chesapeake Bay for the Democrats' annual caucus retreat. "The pipeline issue is one that the Republicans are obsessing over."
"Many of us believe that that pipeline will lock us into a 50 to 100 years of dependence on the dirtiest source of oil," said Waxman, the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He characterized the GOP's Keystone provision as a "special interest earmark" with no business on the tax bill.
The fight over Keystone XL has reached a fever pitch this month after President Obama rejected TransCanada Corp.'s application to expand the pipeline from the oil sands of Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
The State Department said it didn't have time to analyze the environmental impact of the proposal because House Republicans put a 60-day time limit on the process. But Republicans – arguing the decision would prevent the creation of tens of thousands of jobs – have threatened to reverse the administration's decision as part of the payroll tax bill. That package also includes an extension of emergency unemployment insurance (UI) benefits and a pay hike for doctors who treat Medicare patients.
The members of the conference committee have until March 1 to iron out a deal.
"What they insisted on was that the president make a decision, and the president has made his decision," Waxman said. "He didn't have enough time to make a full evaluation without even yet knowing what the [pipeline] route is going to be … and the Republicans expected him to approve even without that basic piece of information."
Waxman listed three "red lines" he said would likely lead Democrats to oppose the tax package: a Keystone amendment, provisions limiting UI eligibility or language cutting Medicare benefits to pay for the increased payments to doctors who treat seniors.
GOP leaders are pushing for all three.
In their yearlong payroll tax extension bill, for instance, GOP leaders included a provision allowing states to require UI beneficiaries to pass drug tests and another forcing UI recipients without a high school education to enroll in GED programs.
Waxman rejected those changes, saying they're "all ideas [Republicans] have to make it harder for people to get help to pay for their living expenses when they don't have a job."
Although all sides back an extension of the three central pillars of the tax bill, Waxman warned there's "no guarantee this conference is going to be successful."
"I wouldn't be surprised if they [GOP leaders] scuttled this conference by holding us hostage to the way that they want to deny people benefits under programs for which they are already entitled to those benefits," he said.
Earlier in the day, two other Democrats on the conference committee – Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Xavier Becerra (Calif.) – delivered a similar message, warning that extraneous provisions like Keystone would complicate the process and threaten the underlying bill.
"There is clear [bipartisan] agreement that the 20 of us want to get these three things done," Becerra told reporters in Cambridge, Md. "We should not let other things get in our way."