WASHINGTON — On Saturday afternoon, it appeared Congress was well on its way to finishing its job for the year — the Senate passed a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut holiday, sending it to the House with seemingly enough bipartisan support to sail through the chamber en route to enactment by the president.
That’s what one would ordinarily assume to happen when a major bill receives 89 “ayes” in the Senate. But this is no ordinary Congress.
House Speaker John Boehner said Republicans will vote down the bill when it comes to the floor later today. He said in a press conference that a long-term extension would provide more certainty for the economy and would keep Congress from “kicking the can down the road” on the issue.
Though most of the House Republican caucus supported a year-long extension of the tax cut when they voted on it last week, a two-month extension puts them in a trickier spot politically. It gives President Obama a political victory on a tax credit with broad implications for the middle class and it also allows him to continue hammering Republicans when Congress return from recess in January.
The issue has become overwhelmingly political, and Democrats have hit Republicans hard for refusing to raise taxes on the upper class in order to reduce the deficit but hesitantly embracing the extension of the payroll tax credit for the middle class. If a short-term extension passes, Congress would have to reconsider the issue in February, meaning Democrats would have an extra two months to establish that narrative and Obama could make it a focal point of his Jan. 24 State of the Union speech.
Many Republicans have objected to the payroll tax cut on principle, saying there is little evidence that the $1,000-per-family tax credit does enough to stimulate the economy. But only 14 Republicans voted against a year-long extension when it came to the floor last week. Among Minnesota Republicans, all but the absent Michele Bachmann voted yes.
The Republican bill paid for the holiday by cutting discretionary spending and included a provision requiring quicker regulatory approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Republicans supported that bill and Democrats opposed it; the opposite result is likely when the House votes on the Senate bill tonight.
The Senate paid for its two-month bill by increasing some fees charged by the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage companies. The bill contained the Keystone pipeline provision, though Obama administration officials say that provision might backfire and actually delay the project. Both Minnesota Senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, supported the bill.
For Democrats, especially liberals like Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, the question is whether to side with their Senate counterparts in passing legislation they support at its core (the tax holiday and unemployment benefits) as well as the more objectable sweeteners meant to entice Republican support (the Keystone XL provision). All but 10 House Democrats voted against the year-long tax cut bill over pipeline concerns (Rep. Tim Walz was one of the 10), but leadership is now urging their support for the Senate bill.
If the Senate bill fails in the House, lawmakers could establish a conference committee to write a compromise bill able to pass both chambers. They’d be working on a tight deadline: the tax credit expires at the end of the year.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry