By Russell Berman and Bernie Becker - 02/16/12 05:24 PM EST
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday the deal struck to extend the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits was “a fair agreement,” but he was in no mood to celebrate.
The Speaker opened a press conference Thursday morning by acknowledging the bipartisan accord but was quick to tell reporters that the measure was an “economic relief package” necessitated by the failure of President Obama’s policies rather than a job-growth bill.
Boehner’s tone reflected a dispirited House Republican conference that has viewed the payroll tax cut as an issue to dispense with, not a victory to champion.
The Speaker pivoted to a sharp attack on Obama for abandoning the legislative process, referring to a White House statement last month that identified the payroll tax cut as the final “must-pass” bill before the November election.
“According to the White House, when he signs this bill, he’s finished,” Boehner said. “For those of you who haven’t noticed, the president checked out last Labor Day and has been unengaged in leading our country ever since. It has been one nonstop campaign trip after another. So he can campaign all he wants, but the Republicans are going to stay focused on jobs.”
Congressional staffers are putting the final touches on the payroll tax conference report, and Boehner did not say whether the House would vote on the bill Friday before a scheduled recess next week.
Senate Republicans on the conference committee have yet to embrace the agreement, which also extends unemployment benefits and delays a cut in the Medicare reimbursement rate through 2012. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has complained that Senate Republicans were left out of the final talks.
Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, one of the GOP conferees, refused to comment on chatter that Senate Republicans on the panel would not sign off on its final product.
“I haven’t said that I’m not signing anything,” Kyl told reporters off the Senate floor. “Until the House is able to complete its work, I’m not going to say anything that would inject my views into the debate.”
But Kyl did agree with Barrasso’s earlier comment suggesting that Senate Republicans felt that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) had shut them out of the process.
Boehner dismissed the Senate GOP complaints.
“I think you need to talk to the conferees, but everything that I’ve seen, they’ve been as involved in the process as anybody else,” he said.
Pressed on the issue, the Speaker said, “There was an awful lot of conversation.”
“As a matter of fact, if I recall correctly, there were two or three public meetings where they were all present. So, for someone to say they weren’t involved really would surprise me," he said.
A Democratic source also rejected assertions from Republican senators that they had been shut out of the process.
"Beyond all the conference meetings, they were deeply enmeshed in the discussions — trading ideas on offers, offsets and policies," the source said. "I guess pretending you were left out is shorthand for not getting every special-interest provision you wanted for your friends downtown. The purpose of this conference wasn't to deck out a K Street Christmas tree, the purpose was to get a tax cut done for 160 million Americans."
— This story was updated at 1:16 p.m.