By Russell Berman and Bernie Becker - 02/15/12 06:50 PM EST
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Wednesday morning that lawmakers have “an agreement in principle” to extend the payroll tax cuts, unemployment benefits and the Medicare “doc fix”, but cautioned that “there are a lot of details that have yet to be worked out.”
GOP leaders briefed their members Tuesday evening on the contours of the deal with Democrats, and the conference met again Wednesday morning. Boehner said he hoped the agreement would be finalized Wednesday, with a House vote by the end of the week.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the chairman of the conference committee dealing with the payroll tax cut, told reporters on Wednesday that negotiators had only an item or two left to figure out.
“So we’re down to the very end,” said Camp, who also chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. “I’m very optimistic that we’re going to conclude this in the time that we have allotted. Hopefully, we’ll be able to vote on it by the end of the week.”
But Camp stopped short of saying that the details of the measure would definitely be finished by the end of the day, which would pave the way for the House to vote on Friday.
“I hope it’ll be posted today,” Camp said. “I think the plan is to try to finish it this week. I think both sides in good faith are trying to do that. It’s just there always are these final issues that need to be taken care of.”
The Speaker defended his decision to abandon his longstanding demand that the payroll tax cut be fully offset with spending cuts. He characterized it as a move designed to bring Democrats who were stalling an agreement back to the bargaining table.
“We were not going to allow the Democrats to continue to play political games and raise taxes on working Americans, and so we made a decision to bring them to the table so the games would stop and we would get this work done,” Boehner said.
Some rank-and-file Republicans have decried the idea of adding $100 billion to the deficit. Boehner responded by pointing to the GOP’s success in cutting spending in 2011, including the debt-limit deal that put in place $2.1 trillion in cuts over a decade.
“We’ve worked all year to cut spending,” he said.
Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), one of the GOP conferees on the payroll tax cut, told reporters on Wednesday that negotiators were “just really down to the fine tuning of the final details.”
With House leaders hoping to vote on the package by Friday, Reed also dismissed concerns that legislative language for the measure could not be wrapped up by the end of Wednesday.
If the conference report is signed by Wednesday, that would allow the House to vote on Friday in accordance with its three-day rule.
“I think we’re pretty confident that that won’t happen,” Reed said of the possibility of the conference report not being finished by Wednesday’s end. “We’ll be able to finalize it today.”
Still, several conservative members of the GOP conference remained skeptical of the payroll tax deal.
Some lawmakers had been under the impression at the Tuesday evening conference meeting that they would be allowed to take separate votes on the payroll tax cut, an extension of unemployment insurance benefits, and the Medicare doc fix.
But Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) said lawmakers had learned that the three items would likely be wrapped into one vote, and some conservatives appear to have concerns about the reforms to the unemployment insurance program.
“I happen to be one of the conservatives who thinks that, since it’s the people’s money, you don’t technically pay for tax cuts,” Mulvaney told reporters after the Wednesday conference meeting. “Giving folks back their money’s not the same as spending it. So I’m relatively comfortable, in my own mind, with the payroll tax.”
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, added that he wanted to see the final details of the reforms to the unemployment insurance program.
Democrats say that, under the discussed payroll tax deal, the maximum number of weeks an unemployed worker would receive benefits would first be 99 before sliding down to 73 by the end of the year. Republicans have said, that in most states, the number of weeks would be capped at 63.
“The thing we hear from employers back home all the time is the 99 weeks. This needs reform,” said Rep. Jordan. “I’d prefer they be separate.”
But in the end, Reed predicted that more and more members of the Republican rank-and-file would get on board with the compromise. “I think as time goes by, support will grow in the conference,” he said.
But the New York Republican also acknowledged that GOP conferees had changed their position on the payroll tax cut in recent days, by consenting to it not being offset after previously pressing for it to be paid for.
“I recognize the impact on the debt,” Reed said. “But, you know, the bottom line is the president’s asked for the reduction. I do believe allowing Americans to keep their money rather than send it to Washington is a generally good policy.”
While the costs of the payroll tax cut would be added to the deficit under the proposed deal, the roughly $50 billion to $60 billion price of the extension of unemployment benefits and the Medicare reimbursement rate would be paid for with a combination of healthcare savings, spectrum sales and savings from federal workers’ pensions, sources have said.
This story was updated at 11:12 a.m. and 1:50 p.m.