Maryland Democrats reverse course, vote against payroll tax bill

Maryland Democrats walked a fine line Friday when they voted against a popular middle class tax cut they've been championing for months.

Sen. Ben Cardin, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen applauded the vast majority of provisions in the payroll tax cut package, which also extended emergency unemployment benefits and staved off a rate cut for doctors treating Medicare patients.

But in the end, Cardin and Van Hollen, both members of the conference committee that hashed out the agreement, opposed the measure on the floor less than 24 hours after endorsing it.

Hoyer voted against the measure as well after accusing Republicans for months of blocking a tax cut that would help 160 million Americans.

The lawmakers, all upset that federal workers would foot some of the bill for the deal, maintained those positions were consistent even as GOP leaders lodged accusations of hypocrisy and the Democrats acknowledged it was little more than a protest vote.

Cardin told reporters on Friday that, while he ended up opposing the deal on the Senate floor, he thought it deserved an up-or-down vote. 

“I felt very strongly that gridlock was not an option,” Cardin said. “I was part of the negotiations. I got what I could under the circumstances, and I felt the right thing to do was to have the full Senate make a decision. That’s what a democracy should do.”

The Friday approval of the payroll tax package ended a topsy-turvy week on Capitol Hill in which Maryland Democrats made a last-ditch effort to blunt the deal’s impact on the federal workforce.

Cardin, Hoyer and Van Hollen eventually won a late concession to exempt current federal workers from pension changes being used to help fund the roughly $30 billion extension of unemployment benefits. 

Their efforts received extra leverage when Senate Republican conferees refused to sign on to the deal, making Cardin’s signature necessary to move forward a tax cut that the White House has called its top legislative priority for 2012.

Republicans on Capitol Hill were also eager to put the payroll tax holiday in the rearview mirror after taking a political beating on the issue late last year.

But on the same day that Congress sent the tax cut to Obama’s desk, Republicans were happy to point out that Hoyer had spent months bashing them for opposing the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits extension only to vote against those provisions.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had said Thursday that she didn’t see a “scenario” in which her caucus would oppose the legislation.

But Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, ended up leading the floor opposition to the bill, with he and other Washington-area lawmakers saying the legislation singled out federal employees for punishment.

“The only individuals paying for this bill out of 315 million Americans are the 2 million civilian workers who work for us, who work for all of us,” Hoyer said on the House floor.

Van Hollen put the blame for that focus on House Republicans, who also have proposed using federal pension changes to pay for their transportation bill.

"They had nothing to do with the financial meltdown on Wall Street, they are not the drivers of our national debt, and I am sick and tired of hearing some members of Congress bad-mouthing and belittling federal employees," he said.

Under the payroll tax measure, new federal workers will pay 2.3 percentage points more of their salary in their retirement contributions, which will help offset about $15 billion of the unemployment extension.

Spectrum sales are also being used to pay for jobless benefits, while the roughly $20 billion worth of Medicare extensions will be paid for with other healthcare savings.

In all, eight Maryland and Virginia Democrats voted against the measure in the House, accounting for about one-fifth of the "no" votes in the caucus.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) joined Cardin in opposing the proposal in the Senate, while Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said the federal-worker provisions were one of the reasons he decided not to back the deal.

But even as they rose to oppose the measure, the Democratic lawmakers didn’t exactly seem troubled by the fact that the deal was sailing through Congress.

“I do not rise to necessarily defeat this bill,” Hoyer said. “I am for almost all of this bill.”

In fact, Cardin termed the payroll tax cut extension, and his work in crafting it, an accomplishment just minutes after voting against it.

“I feel that I was able to accomplish what I could in the parameters that were set,” Cardin said. “I feel that we protected our current workforce.”

— Russell Berman contributed to this report.