McConnell breaks with Boehner, urges House to pass payroll bill

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on Thursday urged House Republicans to pass a two-month extension of the payroll-tax cut, putting greater pressure on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to act.

McConnell said House passage of a Senate-approved payroll-tax relief package “locks in” legislative language requiring President Obama to speed up his timetable for approving the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. 

The bipartisan Senate package also includes a two-month extension of unemployment benefits and a two-month freeze of scheduled cuts to doctors’ Medicare payments. The cost of the package is offset by increasing fees at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, cutting about $3 billion from the deficit. 

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McConnell also backed Boehner’s demand that Senate Democrats appoint conferees to negotiate a year-long extension of the payroll-tax cut with the House.

“[Senate Majority] Leader [Harry] Reid should appoint conferees on the long-term bill, and the House should pass an extension that locks in the thousands of Keystone XL pipeline jobs, prevents any disruption in the payroll tax holiday or other expiring provisions, and allows Congress to work on a solution for the longer extensions,” McConnell said in a news release Thursday morning. 

A spokesman for Boehner echoed McConnell’s call for Senate Democrats to appoint conferees, but declined to comment on the push for the House to act on the two-month bill.

“The House and Senate have two different bills, but the same goal,” said spokesman Kevin Smith. “That is why we believe, as Sen. McConnell suggested, the two chambers should work to reconcile the two bills so that we can provide a full year of payroll-tax relief — and do it before year’s end.”

Reid (D-Nev.) seized on McConnell’s statement to tighten the screws on Boehner. 

“I agree with Sen. McConnell and the many other Republicans who have spoken up in recent days that the most reasonable path forward is for the House of Representatives to pass the Senate’s bipartisan agreement immediately, to make sure that middle-class families do not wake up to a tax increase on January 1st,” Reid said in a statement released Thursday afternoon.

Reid noted that 39 Senate Republicans voted for the two-month payroll tax holiday extension and promised to begin talks on stretching it to a full year as soon as the House passed the Senate bill.   

“It is important that we now hear from Speaker Boehner in light of Sen. McConnell’s comments,” he said. 

McConnell has been caught between GOP senators who voted for the stopgap extension of the payroll-tax holiday and House Republicans who refused to vote up or down on the compromise, despite urgings from a handful of Senate Republicans.

He tried to make peace between the two chambers Thursday.

“House Republicans sensibly want greater certainty about the duration of these provisions, while Senate Democrats want more time to negotiate the terms,” McConnell said. “These goals are not mutually exclusive. We can and should do both.”

Boehner has already appointed eight House Republicans to participate in a bicameral conference committee that would negotiate merging the Senate bill with House-passed legislation to extend the payroll-tax holiday for a year. Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have refused to follow suit, arguing the two-month extension must be passed first.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Thursday that Senate Democrats could not appoint conferees because there’s not enough time on the calendar. 

“What [Boehner] does not understand or does not admit is that in the Senate, unfortunately, it takes days for us to set up a conference committee and then meet,” Durbin said in a CNN interview. “We can’t do this before January 1st, even if it was our intention to do it.”

It would take three motions to appoint Senate conferees. Reid must move to proceed to a conference, then move to name the conferees and finally make a motion to instruct the conferees.

Each step is subject to a filibuster, so if one of the Senate’s 100 members decided to throw up a roadblock, it could take days to complete the process.

But an aide to McConnell said the process wouldn’t take long because no Republicans would object.

“Not if we have unanimous consent,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.

McConnell could put pressure on Reid to appoint conferees by naming the GOP senators he would tap to negotiate a year-long extension of the payroll-tax cut.

Stewart said McConnell could informally name conferees, but downplayed the possibility. Naming conferees to a non-existent conference committee could be seen more as a publicity stunt than moving the ball forward.

“We’re trying to get an accomplishment,” he said. 

McConnell’s statement appeared to have little immediate effect on the House Republican negotiators.

“There’s a difference of opinion between the House and the Senate,” a House GOP negotiator, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), said after leaving Boehner’s office about two hours after McConnell's statement. 

“And the way that you sort out that difference is to have a conference committee work and iron out those differences.” 

Asked if McConnell should also appoint conferees, which he has yet to do, Price replied: “We’d love to have Leader Pelosi appoint her conferees and Senator McConnell appoint his, but the real issue is between the majority in the House and the majority in the Senate.” 

He suggested the looming holiday had not dimmed the House GOP’s resolve. 

“All sorts of people across this country continue to work over both Christmas and New Years,” Price said.

Russell Berman contributed.

— Last updated at 1:22 p.m.