By Alexander Bolton - 12/22/11 10:15 AM EST
Senate Republicans are worried the standoff over extending the payroll tax holiday could hurt their chances of winning the upper chamber next year.
Senior Republican aides have made clear in private conversations that their bosses are not happy with how House Republicans have handled a bipartisan Senate compromise to extend tax relief for two months.
The political operative said incumbents such as Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) could pay the price.
These Republican senators have spoken out against House GOP colleagues. Others lawmakers on the ballot next year have urged House members to pass the payroll tax package to avert tax hikes in January.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page on Wednesday warned that Republicans risked political self-destruction because of the payroll tax debate.
“At this stage, Republicans would do best to cut their losses and find a way to extend the payroll holiday quickly. Then go home and return in January with a united House-Senate strategy that forces Democrats to make specific policy choices that highlight the differences between the parties on spending, taxes and regulation,” the editorial stated. “The alternative is more chaotic retreat and the return of all-Democratic rule.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has offered little public support to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Over the weekend a spokesman for McConnell endorsed Boehner’s call to convene a conference to renegotiate a bipartisan deal to extend the payroll tax for a year. But after Senate Democrats flat-out rejected further negotiations, McConnell stayed silent.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), an influential voice in the Senate Republican Conference, warned that Boehner’s strategy is hurting the party’s image.
“It is harming the Republican Party. It is harming the view, if it’s possible anymore, of the American people about Congress,” McCain said Tuesday in a CNN interview. “We’ve got to get this resolved and with the realization that the payroll tax cut must remain in effect.”
The Senate Republicans who have been the most critical of the House are the ones facing reelection.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday that Republicans are losing the public-relations battle over the payroll tax cut extension and should find a way to extend the tax holiday and move on.
"Are Republicans getting killed now in public opinion? There's no question," Corker said in a CNBC interview.
Brown, the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbent Republican, issued a statement Tuesday blasting House Republicans.
“It angers me that House Republicans would rather continue playing politics than find solutions. Their actions will hurt American families and be detrimental to our fragile economy,” he said.
Heller, who likewise faces a tough reelection bid, delivered a stern warning to House Republicans.
“There is no question we need to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance for the entire year. The American people deserve long-term, forward-thinking policies,” Heller said in a statement.
He backed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) demand that House Republicans first pass a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday before entering talks on a yearlong proposal with Senate Democrats.
“There is no reason to hold up the short-term extension while a more comprehensive deal is being worked out. What is playing out in Washington, D.C., this week is about political leverage, not about what’s good for the American people,” Heller said.
Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Brown and Heller are proving themselves to be independent-minded legislators willing to break the confines of party orthodoxy when necessary.
“Both Heller and Brown voted to extend the payroll tax cut ... in Scott Brown’s case, demonstrating he is the independent candidate he promised to be,” Walsh said. “Politically, [that] makes it hard for the Democrats to go after them.”
Some Republicans argue the meltdown over the payroll tax holiday will inflict more damage on Senate Democrats because they have more Senate seats to defend next year — 23 compared to the Republicans’ 10. If payroll taxes rise and unemployment benefits run out in January, they expect anti-incumbent sentiment to rise and to be a greater problem for Democrats who have more incumbents running next year.
“Back home, people are angry at everyone who’s an incumbent, and Democrats have more incumbents running,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who writes a column for The Hill. “House Republicans are carrying the water they think they were sent to Washington to carry. Extending the payroll tax holiday for two months doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
But Senate Republicans facing reelection worry that the anti-incumbent backlash might only hit the GOP.
The emerging dynamic has led Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, to predict that Democrats could pick up Senate seats next year.
On Sunday, he said that Republicans could even lose the lower chamber.
“If House Republicans let taxes go up on the middle class on Jan. 1, it could very well cost them the majority of the House next year,” Schumer said. “And they will deserve it.”
House Republicans argue that Senate Democrats would be responsible for a payroll tax hike in January, but a growing number of Senate Republicans think they’re losing that battle.
“All the Republicans know that Democrats are winning the argument right now,” said the veteran Senate GOP strategist.
— Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.