By Russell Berman and Bernie Becker - 02/08/12 01:29 AM EST
President Obama is not getting his wish for a “no drama” extension of the payroll tax cut.
A bitter blame game broke out Tuesday over stalled negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on how to pay for an extension of the tax cut for the rest of 2012, along with unemployment insurance benefits and a fix to the Medicare reimbursement rate for doctors.
The partisan backbiting prompted the top House GOP negotiator on the committee, Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.), to tell leaders of both parties to back off and let the panel work.
With the deadline for extending the measures three weeks away, the breakdown ushered in a feeling of déjà vu for a Capitol prone to procrastination.
“Where are we today, literally days away from the expiration of that agreement? We’re nowhere; we’re back in the world of confrontation,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, in an afternoon press conference.
Durbin and other Democratic leaders pointed to strong economic data in recent weeks and suggested that Republicans wanted to stymie the recovery. Economists have said a failure to extend the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits could negatively affect the total rate of growth.
When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was asked whether Republicans were trying to derail the recovery, he replied: “It appears that is true.”
Earlier Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he had “significant concerns” about whether Senate Democrats sincerely wanted to broker a payroll tax extension with House Republicans. The Senate GOP leader, Mitch McConnell (Ky.), accused Democrats of negotiating in bad faith. “They are the obstructionists,” he said of the Democrats. “They are the ones who are keeping us from advancing the ball. And they’ve been remarkably candid about it.”
By late morning, Camp had had enough of both sides butting in on his panel’s deliberations. The GOP chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee defended the Democrats on the conference committee, saying he believed they were bargaining “in good faith.”
“I think we’re hearing from both leaders, and frankly I guess my only point would be, let’s let the conferees work,” Camp said after a two-and-a-half-hour conference meeting. “I don’t think the comments from either side of leadership, from either body, are particularly helpful.”
After the GOP bungled the payroll tax issue in December, Democrats have tried to take advantage during the talks over a full-year extension. While the House GOP passed its own year-long bill in December, the Senate has been unable to do the same. Republicans have pushed the Democrats to release their own plan, worrying that they are stalling for time in the hopes that the GOP will buckle in the days before the deadline at month’s end.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) mocked Republicans for prolonging a fight they had already lost once. “Well, I guess they’re masochists, because they want to go through it again,” he said.
Democratic leaders have opposed GOP proposals to pay for the extension by freezing federal worker pay, and Republicans have not bent on Democratic proposals for tax increases.
With three weeks left until the tax break expires, Camp has held private discussions with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), which an aide with knowledge of the talks termed productive.
Camp also told House GOP leaders, in a private Monday meeting, that Reid’s recent comments have been unhelpful. Reid has said Senate Democrats are crafting a “backup” payroll plan in case the conference committee can’t come to an agreement. Republicans, however, doubt any plan he comes up with could pass the Senate. Reid said Tuesday the conference had until early next week to come to an agreement.
Party leaders will have to sign off on any deal, and Congress breaks for a recess after next week.
With the tax break expiring at month’s end, the conference committee on Tuesday slogged through yet another meeting with little noticeable progress.
The 20 lawmakers, in their first meeting to focus solely on how to pay for their proposals, found themselves in stark disagreement over a pay freeze for federal workers and Medicare and other healthcare changes.
“We’re moving ahead, but we don’t have a lot of time. We need to keep going,” Camp said.
Baucus, the vice chairman of the conference committee, said during the public meeting that Senate Democrats would unveil a plan “very soon” that deals with some of the knottier unemployment insurance issues, including the maximum number of weeks unemployed workers could receive benefits.
Republicans have also lobbied to require those receiving benefits without a high school diploma to be seeking a GED, and to allow states to drug-test potential beneficiaries.
But while some Democratic conferees were hopeful that the offer would be ready by Tuesday, a Democratic aide on Capitol Hill said that would not be the case. The conference committee is not expected to meet on Wednesday, at least in part because Senate Democrats are scheduled to hold their retreat.
At Tuesday’s conference meeting, Democrats also rejected roughly $70 billion worth of offsets proposed by Republicans, which would have extended a pay freeze on federal workers and members of Congress and found savings in Medicare and health exchange subsidies.
Republicans said that Obama and other Democrats have supported those sorts of proposals. But Democrats at Tuesday’s meeting continued to press for a surtax on millionaires, with Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) proposing to limit that levy to 1 percent.
“We very much want to keep this very much front-and-center,” Levin said. “It relates to everything.”
Republicans were broadly frustrated with the Democratic positions. “It’s very concerning that what appears to be bipartisan proposals that we’re putting out there as pay-fors are summarily rejected,” a member of the conference meeting, Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), said in an interview. “To me, I saw a lot of politics today, and that’s a shame.”
— Alexander Bolton and Vicki Needham contributed to this report.
— Posted at 1:41 p.m. and updated at 8:29 p.m.