If House Republicans have proven anything this year, it’s they are absolutely sure of what they’re against. What they have rarely been sure of, and what eludes them now, is what they are for.
What also eludes them at present is a strategy to get what they want once they decide on what they want.
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This emerged as the key question for House Republicans as they pondered strategy on Monday.
Uncertain how to adapt a communications strategy to combat President Obama and Senate Democrats, the realization slowly dawned on them as they returned to the Capitol they were walking into a public-relations disaster of their own making. Several House GOP leadership sources said lawmakers looked at the likely schedule of votes – ranging from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. Tuesday – and realized most of the country would sleep through the debate and awake to read stories about manic, wee-hour legislative chaos the week of Hanukkah and Christmas – not precisely the optics Republicans, already losing ground on the all-important tax issue, wanted to face.
Those problems would have been compounded, GOP aides conceded, by video of a nearly vacant Capitol on Tuesday when most members would have left even after taunting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to return to Washington to debate the payroll-tax issue. Even though this will remain a big part of the GOP argument against Senate Democrats – that they need to engage in compromise talks in the context of a conference committee – the vast majority of House Republicans will flee the Capitol while GOP-appointed conferees await the Senate Democrats’ next move.
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“The overwhelming sentiment in our conference is that Reid is the one who should be ashamed and that we should vote in light of day,” one senior GOP aide said, echoing the “light of day” message from elected GOP leaders. “At the rate we were going we would have been here voting at 5 a.m.”
The tax issue appears to be shifting in Obama’s direction, at least according to one national survey. The Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Obama now leads congressional Republicans on whom voters trust to deal with taxes by a margin of 46 percent to 41 percent. In October, the same survey showed Republicans leading Obama 46 percent to 39 percent.
Senior House GOP aides said that after the House moves to reject the Senate payroll-tax compromise and call for a conference committee Tuesday, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, will name his GOP members.
But even if Democrats come back, it’s unclear what House Republicans will accept as a compromise and how they will sell it to a rank-and-file membership that appears more entrenched and inflexible than ever – even to fellow Republicans. When asked to describe the endgame or the policy bottom line, senior House GOP aides demur. They don’t know it, can’t see it, and are by no means certain whether they could sell it.
This internal House GOP stalemate threatens to derail the Senate payroll-tax compromise, forcing lawmakers to work up until Christmas and then return for legislative business right up until New Year’s Day – deepening a sense of economic uncertainty and congressional chaos that has typified the year. This would also require President Obama to cancel or significantly delay his planned holiday vacation in Hawaii.
The payroll tax cut – worth roughly $1,000 per year to the average working family – now hangs in the balance for 160 million taxpayers. The Senate bill would extend that tax cut, created in the 2010 lame-duck session of the 111th Congress, for two months. It would also impose a restriction to prevent high-wage earners from receiving the cut. That move may make the extension unworkable, the nonpartisan National Payroll Reporting Consortium, Inc., said on Monday. As written, the Senate bill “could create substantial problems, confusion, and costs affecting a significant percentage of U.S. employers and employees,” consortium President Pete Isberg said.
For this and other reasons, House Republicans know they hate the Senate-passed, two-month extension of the current 2 percent payroll-tax cut, jobless benefits, and the so-called “doc fix” that shields Medicare-reimbursed physicians from a scheduled pay cut of 27 percent in 2012. They intend to reject the Senate compromise, passed Saturday on a lopsided 89-10 vote. No fewer than 39 Senate Republicans backed that bill – the one their House GOP counterparts loathe.
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