WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives adjourned Tuesday after its majority Republicans had cast votes in one of the largest political gambles of what has been a year of high-stakes lawmaking.
The House Republicans bucked their Senate colleagues and voted down a two-month extension of a 2 percent payroll tax cut that passed the Senate 89-10 on Saturday. They challenged Democrats to return to Washington to negotiate a yearlong extension of the tax holiday, but 160 million Americans will see higher taxes starting Jan. 1 if their bluff is called.
The Minnesota delegation (except the absent Rep. Michele Bachmann) voted along party lines Tuesday when the House rejected the Senate’s plan. Republicans insist they’re holding out for a better, one-year extension that will provide more predictability for the economy. But by opposing even a short-term extension of a middle-class tax cut after a year spent fighting against upper-class tax increases, they risk muddling their “no new taxes” message.
“We’re truly much more concerned about getting policy right … than about the political calculus,” Minnesota Republican John Kline said in an MPR interview Tuesday. “This is the right thing to do based on what’s best for our constituents.”
Beyond policy, however, there are plenty of political incentives for House Republicans to insist on a yearlong deal before the end of 2011. A two-month extension would set up another political battle on this issue in February, when Americans will generally be paying closer attention to politics. President Barack Obama will have delivered his State of the Union address, the first votes will have been cast in the 2012 presidential race and, rightly or wrongly, Republicans don’t want to be seen as obstructing a middle-class tax cut in an election year.
But allowing middle-class taxes to go up would be far worse than getting entangled in next year’s political battles, University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson said.
“That still seems to open them up to attacks,” she said.
Democrats have already gone on the offensive.
“A faction of Republicans in the House are refusing to even vote on the Senate bill — a bill that cuts taxes for 160 million Americans,” Obama said at a press conference Tuesday. “And because of their refusal to cooperate, all those Americans could face a tax hike in just 11 days, and millions of Americans who are out there looking for work could find their unemployment insurance expired.”
In a short opinion piece written for The Nation, Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison blamed “anti-government ideologues” with quashing the Senate’s deal.
“The Tea Partiers rejected the deal their leader blessed — knowing full well the Senate would not capitulate to their demand — and thereby risking the livelihood of 160 million Americans who depend on the extension of unemployment benefits and payroll tax cuts,” he wrote.
Congress this year has struck 11th hour deals on both its 2011 and 2012 fiscal-year budgets and an increase in the federal debt ceiling. It’s failed to come to a consensus on a long-term deficit reduction package. It has only enacted bits and pieces of a major jobs program proposed by the president, and the House Republicans’ jobs agenda has died in the Democratic-controlled Senate. As Congress ends the public’s least favorite session ever, politics in general is taking some of the blame.
“It’s emblematic of the sort of problems Congress has had,” Republican Erik Paulsen told WCCO Radio. “Washington continues to be broken. … Instead of doing their jobs I think some politicians are more interested in winning their next campaign.”
“The cynicism out of this is just beyond the pale,” Democrat Tim Walz said. “This is certainly the worst of the year, in a really bad partisan year.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry