After a year of battles, it’s the payroll-tax holiday that could be the defining moment for the freshman class of House Republicans in the 112th Congress.
The House, influenced by a new mentality ushered in after the 2010 wave elections, stood its ground on issues like spending and the debt ceiling all year, watching as Democrats conceced time and again. But, depending on how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and President Obama act now, their intransigence on extending tax breaks for the middle class could either be another feather in their cap, or a failure for the Republican Party. Either way, the freshman class doesn’t see a downside.
(RELATED: House Blocks Payroll, Jobless Aid Bill)
“I don’t care about the political implications,” said Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y. “I don’t care about my reelection effort. I came here to do what’s right for America.”
The power of such statements is not derived from whether or not they are true -- most members of course would rather serve more than one term. The sentiment is powerful because statements like Reed's are exactly what get tea party candidates elected.
By many accounts, the old guard—of both parties and in both chambers—was ready to go home for the holidays after the Senate approved 89-10 a two-month compromise package that would extend the payroll-tax cut and unemployment insurance, and keep doctors who see Medicaid patients from taking a 27 percent pay cut.
A member who was on Saturday's House GOP conference call said that Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said approving the Senate deal would allow his members to “live to fight another day.”
However, as has been the case for much of the year, House Republicans wanted more than to just survive. The freshmen united against passing the Senate bill.
“It’s clear to me that this freshman phenomenon that happened last year is starting to flex its muscle a little bit,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark.
Democrats actually seem to agree with Womack on this point, but that doesn’t mean they think it's a good thing.
“The reason Republicans are not taking 'yes' for an answer is because 'no' is their answer,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a press conference. “Radical tea party Republicans are holding up this tax cut.”
Clearly freshmen are “flexing their muscle,” but that display is not without risk. Instead of bringing the Senate bill to the House floor, Boehner moved legislation calling for a conference between the House and Senate to further hash out differences on the payroll package. This requires Reid to call the Senate back into session and appoint conferees, something he refuses to do.
“Sen. McConnell and I negotiated a compromise at Speaker Boehner’s request,” Reid said in a statement. “I will not re-open negotiations until the House follows through and passes this agreement that was negotiated by Republican leaders, and supported by 90 percent of the Senate.”
House Republicans hope that either Reid is bluffing, or that Obama will step in and force the Senate back to Washington.
That is the sum total of the freshman plan.
When asked about contingency plans, Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said none have “been talked about at all” in conference meetings.
Yet, at least publicly, they don't seem to believe they will successfully force Reid's hand.
“It won’t surprise me if Sen. Reid abandons his responsibilities,” said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., leader of the GOP freshman class.
If Reid doesn't blink, the payroll-tax holiday and unemployment benefits expire on Jan. 1; or perhaps, even more anathema to freshmen, they may have to vote directly on the Senate package after all. Either way, freshmen will face constituents over the Christmas break and tell them they stood on principle and that the Democrats are to blame.
“I think that everyone across this entire nation will see Democrats for who they are,” said Rep. Allen West, R-Fla.
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