The House on Tuesday voted to block a Senate-backed compromise on a payroll tax cut extension, a move that's keeping Congress from finishing up its work before the holidays. But beyond the convenience of getting out of town, the debate over an extension is likely to play a role in several key races that could determine control of the upper chamber.
And the way Republican candidates are acting reveals a great deal about the strategic posturing over the issue. A closer look at the races where the debate is leaving a mark:
Massachusetts/Nevada: In the two states where Democrats see their best opportunities to make pickups, Sens. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., both voted in favor of the temporary extension that passed in the Senate. They have been vocally lobbying for the House to pass the bill, a stand that puts them on Democrats' side and against the House GOP. That's not a bad thing for either candidate: The House/Senate spat over the payroll tax extension offers them an opportunity to appear more consensus builder than party loyalist - which will pay dividends in the general election.
Indiana: The one Republican Senate incumbent who faces a serious primary challenge right now finds himself at odds with his GOP opponent in the debate over the payroll tax cut extension.
Republican Sen. Richard Lugar
voted for the bipartisan measure that passed the Senate last week. He was one of the 89 senators who voted for the compromise, which would have extended the payroll tax cut as well as unemployment benefits for 60 days and also included a GOP-backed provision that applies pressure on the Obama administration for a speedier decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.
Today Lugar is up with a radio ad -- his first of the race (he has already gone up on TV) -- touting his pressure on the administration to act on the Keystone XL pipeline.
"The President, kowtowing to liberal cronies, is trying to halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would kill 20,000 new jobs. But Dick Lugar said no. It is Dick Lugar who wrote the bill to force Obama to act and stop playing politics with American jobs," the narrator of the ad says.
Not surprisingly, his opponent, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock
is against the Senate-passed legislation. He cites the temporary two-month length of the extension as the primary reason for why he cannot support the bill (It's worth noting that Democrats had originally pushed for a 12-month extension).
"While I support the long term extension of the payroll taxes for working Americans as well as the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that is included in this package, I do not support this version of the bill," Mourdock said in a statement to Hotline On Call
. "A mere two-month extension of the payroll tax reduction is not enough, especially when it comes with additional spending. There have also been legitimate issues raised about the administrative burdens that would be placed on American employers by the need to adjust payroll withholding on such a short term basis."
Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly
, the party's likely nominee for the seat, is happy to fan the flames between bickering Republicans. Donnelly praised Lugar's calls for the House to pass the Senate compromise, something sure to rile up conservatives who stand against Lugar.
"I thank Senator Lugar for reaching across the aisle and standing with me to support this tax cut over the objections of extremists in his party," Donnelly said in a statement.
While the House blocked the Senate-passed extension, GOP leadership used a procedural tactic
to refer the legislation to a conference committee.
A glance at the final vote illustrates that at least a couple of Republicans in competitive Senate races believe that a vote to block the Senate compromise will not hurt them in the general election. The House blocked the Senate bill by a vote of 229-193. Two likely Republican Senate nominees -- Reps. Rick Berg
, R-N.D., and Dennis Rehberg
, R-Mont. -- voted to block the Senate bill, joining the majority of their conference (Only seven House Republicans voted no).
"I am glad that Senate Democrats have joined the House in recognizing that the Keystone XL pipeline expansion will create thousands of good-paying American jobs and help our nation break its dependence on foreign oil -- and this should be a part of the final solution. However there is more work to be done and the American people expect us to finish our jobs," Berg said in a statement.
Even so, Democrats in Montana and North Dakota issued statements assailing the two for rejecting the Senate bill, using language like voting "to raise taxes" and killing what Democrats are calling the Senate "compromise."
Berg and Rehberg will be able to claim they voted for a year-long extension, rather than the short-term extension the Senate endorsed. But if Congress doesn't act, Democrats will assail the two for blocking any extension in the first place.
It's not surprising that Reps. Todd Akin
, R-Mo., and Connie Mack
, R-Fla., voted with the majority of Republicans in the House -- they both face competitive GOP primaries. Cooperation is a dirty word in Washington these days, and House Republicans who could face primary challenges want to be seen standing against Democrats any chance they get.