The Republican-led House blocked the Senate’s two-month extension of a payroll tax cut, jobless aid, and the “doc fix” patch, and demanded senators return to Washington and negotiate or see millions of Americans lose benefits at year's end.
But whether Democrats will play ball is far from certain. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he will not bring the Senate back into session, and leadership aides insisted he will not cave in his refusal to appoint members to a conference committee. It now appears House GOP and Senate Democratic leaders will pause to weigh the public fallout, and that means a last-minute deal -- if one emerges -- is more likely next week than this week.
The standoff is a risky political gamble for House Republicans. The caucus has scored win after win this year with a strategy of intransigence on spending and deficit reduction, and it’s betting that President Obama and Democrats will blink once again. But if Democrats do not budge, House Republicans risk taking blame for both raising tax rates and ending jobless benefits just as economists warn the tepid recovery needs all the support it can get.
"Bring up the Senate bill for a vote,” Obama told Boehner and House leaders from the White House briefing room. "Put aside issues where there are fundamental disagreements and come together on something we agree on, and let's not play brinksmanship. The American people are weary of it, they're tired of it, they expect better."
While the president chastised House Republicans, House Speaker John Boehner tried to put responsibility for the future of the payroll tax package squarely on Obama’s shoulders.
“I need the president to help out,” Boehner said after the House vote. “The issue now is will the president engage with the Senate Democrats and bring them to the table to resolve this.”
The Senate bill, which passed 89-10 and included 39 Republicans, would have extended for two months a payroll tax cut, unemployment insurance, and a patch that stops a 27 percent pay cut from hitting doctors who treat Medicare beneficiaries. The short-term fix reflected senators’ inability to agree on how to pay for a full-year extension of the package.
But the House voted along party lines to disagree with the Senate bill, a procedural motion that denied lawmakers the up-or-down vote Republican leaders promised on the Senate legislation. The motion refers the legislation to a conference committee for negotiation.
While Boehner was at first prepared to accept the Senate’s short extension and re-open the discussion in 2012, rank-and-file Republicans rebelled, again, telling him they would not go along. Instead, they have insisted on advancing a one-year package of benefits that also would force Obama to make a decision on the hotly-disputed Keystone XL pipeline.
The House GOP’s action Tuesday infuriated Democrats, who said the Senate bill had enough support from both sides of the aisle to pass. They accused Republicans of putting benefits for 160 million Americans in peril.
“This is a dishonest procedure. This is a ruse,” said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. “Why not hold a straight vote, as indeed called for under regular order? Because the Republican majority is afraid of a straight vote.”
The tactic also revealed a rift within the GOP, angering Republicans in the Senate who got behind the two-month extension after Boehner walked away from fruitless talks toward a longer-term deal, telling Senate leaders to come up with a plan on their own.
House Republicans dismissed the criticism and shrugged off suggestions that their vote would look bad at home. “I feel very confident, despite the fact that I know the headlines are just creaming us,” said Rep. Patrick Tiberi, R-Ohio. In meetings with constituents last weekend, Tiberi said, “People were looking at me, not just Republicans, and saying, 'Two months? Really?’ ”
Senate Democrats insisted Tuesday they will not return until the House passes the two-month payroll tax extension. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., predicted on MSNBC that House Republicans will back down.
Senate Democrats, as Schumer indicated, believe they are winning politically, with Republicans facing blame for the stalemate. There is little chance they will change their position until that view changes.
While a call by Obama for negotiation could force Democrats back to the table, the White House showed no sign of moving on the issue. A senior White House official said that President Obama and Reid are "of one mind" about strategy. "This is all on the House right now," the official said.
"Let's be clear. Right now, the bipartisan compromise that was reached on Saturday is the only viable way to prevent a tax hike on Jan. 1. The only one," Obama told reporters.
The message may be the most direct communication between the White House and the speaker’s office during the payroll-tax-cut negotiations. White House press secretary Jay Carney said that the president had not personally reached out to the House Republican leadership, and said it wasn't the president’s role to play “marriage counselor” between House and Senate Republicans.
Senate aides predicted no movement for at least several days and the House let members go home, telling them they would get 24-hour notice of any legislative action. The last time Congress continued to meet through Christmas was in 1995.
Dan Friedman, Ben Terris, Julia Edwards, and Marc Ambinder contributed