Dems warn passing payroll tax deal is ‘a long ways’ off

House Democratic leaders warned Wednesday that a bipartisan deal on the payroll tax cut package could be a long ways off.

The Democrats are praising the Republicans decision not to offset President Obamas extended payroll tax holiday, but cautioned that the GOPs push to shorten the duration of emergency unemployment benefits — and offset that provision with cuts in federal pensions — could sink the deal.

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The cut in benefits, from what they currently are to something dramatically less, for me would be unacceptable, Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), vice-chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said during a press briefing in the Capitol. I dont believe the number, the maximum number [of weeks], would be [in the 70-to-80-week range].

Becerra also rejected the idea of paying for the unemployment benefits extension with cuts in pensions to some federal workers.

Im not interested in asking one worker in America to take a cut in his salary or compensation so we can make sure that another American can continue to have a payroll tax cut or receive his unemployment insurance, he said.

“I've learned to wait to see the deal to know that there's a deal,” Becerra said. “We’re still a long ways from getting there.”

Republicans are insisting a deal on the roughly $160 billion package is imminent, leaving time for the House to pass the measure before Congress leaves town Friday for a week-long President's Day vacation. But with many conservative Republicans revolting against the bill's failure to offset the payroll tax provision, GOP leaders will likely need dozens of Democratic votes to pass the proposal.

Becerra's warnings, delivered following the Democrats' weekly caucus meeting in the Capitol Wednesday, are some indication that rank-and-file Democrats are apprehensive about some of the major provisions in the package. In remains to be seen, however, if the Democratic opposition would be considerable enough to sink the entire package, particularly since Democrats are eager to hand President Obama an early election-year victory on his payroll tax cut extension.

"It depends on what they [Republicans] come out with," said Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Larson said Democrats remain wary of a cut in unemployment benefits as well as the package’s offset provisions.

The mood amongst Democrats is, Well, what are the details? Larson said. Theres a lot of policy in there that just has people pulling their hair out.

Larson argued that cutting unemployment benefits doesnt save the government money, because those kicked off the emergency insurance program will simply shift to food stamps — an entitlement program thats also funded by taxpayers.

We still regard unemployment as an emergency, he said.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders, who said Tuesday night a deal would be finalized Wednesday, amplified that claim Wednesday morning.

Rep. Tom Reed (N.Y.), one of the GOP conferees on the payroll tax cut, told reporters Wednesday that negotiators were “just really down to the fine tuning of the final details.”

“We’ll be able to finalize it [Wednesday],” he said.

— Bernie Becker contributed.

This story was updated at 12:46 p.m.