Negotiators sign deal to extend payroll tax cut, paving way for votes

Congressional negotiators have signed off on a sweeping package to extend the payroll tax cut, emergency unemployment benefits and the Medicare reimbursement rate, potentially paving the way for both chambers to consider the measure on Friday.

Members of the conference committee tasked with reaching the agreement cast it as a bipartisan achievement in a Congress known for gridlock.

“Whenever we can get something done here that’s bipartisan, and that has a positive impact on jobs, that’s a good result,” said Sen. Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, one of four Senate Democrats that signed the conference report.

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The signing of the report was the latest development in a chaotic week for the conference committee that started Monday, when House GOP leaders dropped their demand that the $100 billion cost of the tax cut extension be paid for.

Negotiators announced on Tuesday that they were very close to a deal, but it took until early Thursday morning for Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who headed the conference committee, to announce a final agreement.

Even as 17 of the 20 conferees signed on to the deal — 8 House Republicans, 5 House Democrats and 4 Senate Democrats — there were still signs of partisan discontent.

None of the three Senate Republicans on the panel signed the report, after complaining that they were shut out of the final negotiations.

Baucus denied to reporters that the Senate GOP had been swept aside in the talks, while Camp did his best not to get dragged into the debate.

“This is actually a positive moment,” Camp told reporters as conferees were signing the report.

But other House Republican conferees said they understood why their Senate colleagues, being in the minority, would have a different perspective.

“They have a different job to do,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). “You know, we have to govern. And that’s not easy, and these aren’t easy issues. They’ve been good partners as we’ve negotiated this.”

Democrats practically reveled in what Sen. Charles Schumer of New York called the “strange divisions” between House and Senate Republicans.

“You have a situation where, for once, the House Republicans are negotiating a responsible package and standing by it,” Schumer told reporters. “But the Senate Republican leadership seems to be linking arms with the far right.”

In the other chamber, Rep. Sandy Levin of Michigan, one of the Democratic conferees, had his own theory about the GOP split.

"Since the House Republicans were burned in December, they made the decision, 'Never again, at least not the next month,' " he said. "The Senate Republicans did not feel the same."

With dozens of House conservatives expected to oppose the bill over the absence of an offset for the payroll-tax provision, GOP leaders will likely need a wave of Democratic votes to usher the measure through the lower chamber.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday all but promised that the Democratic support would be forthcoming. The California Democrat criticized certain elements of the proposal — particularly the cuts to some federal pensions and the 10-month "doc-fix" in lieu of a longer-term solution — but praised the overall package as a boon for the economy and a victory for Democrats.

"While we do not like the pay-for … we do recognize that the bill does contain the three features that we said were necessary and does so … in a way that I think is acceptable to most of us," she said during a press briefing in the Capitol. "I don't see a scenario where our members will vote against it."

But at the same time, Democrats aren’t exactly unanimous in their praise for the measure.

Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said on Thursday that he would oppose the package, due to a provision requiring new federal workers to contribute more to their pensions.

Hoyer, Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Sen. Ben Cardin, all Maryland Democrats, had worked on Wednesday to exempt current federal workers from the pension requirement.

Some Senate Democrats — Mark Warner of Virginia and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — have also said they will oppose the deal.

In addition to extending the payroll tax cut through 2012, the agreement also extended and reformed the unemployment insurance program, and staved off a 27 percent cut in the Medicare reimbursement rate for doctors. All three policies are set to expire at the end of February.

The roughly $30 billion in costs for the unemployment extension will be offset with spectrum sales and federal pension cuts, while the Medicare changes, with a price tag of just over $20 billion, will be offset with a variety of savings from the health care arena.

— This story was updated at 6:30 p.m.