With Christmas approaching, the House approved a temporary extension of the payroll-tax cut, allaying fears that Congress would need to return before its holiday recess ends in mid-January.
The president signed the bill before departing for his Hawaiian vacation, ending the standoff at least for now. Speaking in the White House briefing room, he told reporters: "When Congress returns, I urge them to keep working, without drama, without delay, to reach an agreement that extends this tax cut as well as unemployment insurance through all of 2012." He called the bill "a Christmas gift, just in the nick of time."
He wasn't kidding. As late as Friday morning, there were fears that at least one House Republican member would deny the unanimous consent required for the measure to clear the chamber. On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, bowed to pressure from Democrats and even Senate Republicans to drop his opposition to a short-term deal that would have extended the payroll-tax cut and unemployment benefits as well as a "doc fix" to prevent a huge financial blow to physicians who deal with Medicare. The bill also contains some adjustments to the payroll-tax system to help small businesses.
When Congress returns, attention will turn to the conference committee assigned to carve out a deal between the two chambers. But the differences remain large over how to pay for the deal, with Republicans looking to areas like freezing wages of federal workers and Democrats still considering a tax hike on the wealthy.
On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., named Senate Democratic conferees to the panel. They include Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Max Baucus of Montana, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and Robert Casey of Pennsylvania.
The House Democratic conferees named Friday are Sander Levin of Michigan, Xavier Becerra of California, Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania, Henry Waxman of California, and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
House Republican conferees were named earlier this week. They are Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, Dave Camp of Michigan, Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, Nan Hayworth of New York, Tom Price of Georgia, Tom Reed of New York, Fred Upton of Michigan, and Greg Walden of Oregon.
“This is a good Christmas present, a good Kwanzaa present, a good Hanukkah present for America,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters on Friday morning.
Hoyer said that Democrats were prepared to do the work necessary to ensure a longer extension, but he and other Democrats warned the House GOP against entering into another game of chicken--their words--as the next deadline approaches.
"Now we must immediately focus on extending these critical policies for a full year,” Hoyer said. “I am hopeful that Republicans will work with us to do so quickly, and not take Americans to the brink once more."
Republicans have vowed to fight for their principles come January, and another showdown seems eminently likely.
Almost forgotten amid the day's chaos was that Friday, Dec. 23, was meant to be the deadline for Congress to vote on recommendations from the super committee, which, of course, never produced any.