Payroll tax vote divides GOP

The vote to extend the payroll tax holiday on Friday will highlight a stark contrast between Republicans leaders in the House and Senate.

While House GOP leaders are reluctantly backing the agreement, most Senate Republicans are expected to vote against it. This will be the first time that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his lieutenants will be voting differently than their Senate counterparts on a high-profile issue in the 112th Congress.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has declined to take a public position on the measure, which would add about $100 billion to the deficit. But some of his colleagues expect him to vote no once it has safely passed the lower chamber.

“We want it to pass, but we don’t want to vote for it,” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity.

A spokesman for McConnell warned against letting other lawmakers characterize his boss’s position and noted the bill had only been finalized late Thursday afternoon. McConnell’s leadership deputies, including Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), oppose the legislation.

One GOP source said Senate Republican leaders are worried that a storm of criticism from the upper chamber could undercut Boehner’s effort to pass the bill. 


Most Democrats have embraced the payroll deal, though Republican votes will be needed for it to clear both chambers on Friday.

A senior Democratic aide said as many as five Senate Democrats might vote against moving to a final vote on the package, which means at least 12 Republicans would have to back it to muster the 60 votes needed.

One Republican senator said he doubted the measure would get more than a dozen GOP votes in the upper chamber.

Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) have signaled opposition. It’s unclear whether they would all vote to support a filibuster or merely against final passage.

“The vote’s going to have more suspense than people might think,” said a Democratic aide.

The House is expected to vote at around 1 p.m. Friday, and senators hope to approve it by late afternoon. But lawmakers have had little time to review it, and the schedule could slip. If Senate conservatives object to waiving the rules, the process could drag out over Presidents Day weekend.

The legislation would extend the 4.2 percent payroll tax rate through the end of the year, reform and extend the federal unemployment benefits program and preserve Medicare payments to doctors at current levels.

After working hand in glove throughout much of 2011, tension has emerged between Boehner and McConnell over the last couple of months as the payroll holiday battle intensified. Yet the leaders are in very different political positions as Boehner drives the agenda in the GOP-led House while McConnell is the opposition leader in the Senate.

McConnell is in a tough position. Republican senators acknowledge that President Obama won the public-relations war when the payroll tax holiday nearly lapsed at the end of last year, and they want to avoid a similar political drubbing this spring.

Still, many Republicans think the temporary tax holiday will have a negligible effect on economic growth. They are also concerned that voting for a bill that adds to the deficit will open them to charges of hypocrisy from Tea Party activists.

Senate GOP leaders gave their rank-and-file colleagues a briefing on the package Thursday afternoon but did not urge members to vote yes or no, letting them follow their consciences, according to lawmakers who attended.

GOP Senate leadership aides did circulate a memo highlighting concessions their side won in the final agreement, including cuts to Obama’s healthcare reform law to pay for the freeze in scheduled cuts to doctors’ payments. The preventive healthcare fund set up by the law would be reduced by $5 billion over 10 years.

Two Senate Republican conferees, Sens. Kyl and John Barrasso (Wyo.), told reporters they were shunted aside from the talks led by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.).
Boehner dismissed the Senate GOP complaints during a press conference Thursday.

“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.
Senate Democratic leaders on Thursday publicly pressed McConnell to let his members vote for the deal, even if he opposes it.

“This deal will not pass unless Leader McConnell gives it his blessing. Even if he won’t vote for it himself, he needs to allow enough of his members to support it so it can pass,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democratic leader.

Schumer, who lambasted House Republicans throughout 2011, actually praised them on Thursday.

“It’s usually Speaker Boehner who gets dragged along by the Tea Party,” he added. “But this time, it looks like it may be the Senate Republican leadership.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “Just last week, my counterpart Sen. McConnell said, and I quote, ‘Let’s allow the conferees to finish their work. There is no reason we shouldn’t be able to get this done.’ ”

McConnell said Republicans strongly supported extending the payroll tax holiday for the rest of the year. But he also stated clearly that the fiscal stimulus should not add to the deficit.

“At what point do we anticipate getting serious here about doing something about deficit and debt? We think we ought to pay for it,” McConnell told reporters last week. “Regardless of whether these kinds of things have been paid for or not paid for in the past, we are where we are. We're running another trillion-dollar deficit for the fourth year in a row.”

Despite their leaders’ guidance not to criticize the payroll tax holiday, some Senate conservatives could not hold back.

“If it’s not paid for, I’m not going to vote for it. Period,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

He added that it was “absolutely immoral” for Congress to “charge it to our children.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said he was not sure how he would vote but expressed some misgivings about the agreement.

“Personally, I’ve always had trouble with it, because it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Hatch said of the plan to use general treasury funds to pay for the 10-month reduction in payroll taxes.

Hatch said he voted in December for a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday for only one reason: That short-term package included language expediting the approval process for the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Bernie Becker and Russell Berman contributed to this report.