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.
It is not lost on Obama and Senate Democrats that Republicans now are divided on an issue -- tax cuts -- that used to split Democrats. “We need a partner in this,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. Referring to the Senate compromise, Carney said: “We had a partner in this. Blowing up the process now is playing politics with the paychecks of 160 million Americans."
House Republicans know they like the bill they passed last week that extends the payroll tax cut for a full year, shortens the duration of jobless benefits next year (from a maximum of 99 weeks to 59 weeks), and provides a two-year “doc fix.” But that bill was ignored by the Democratic Senate.
The House bill offset the cost of all extensions – payroll-tax cut, Medicare reimbursement, and jobless benefits – with spending cuts that Democrats find unacceptable, especially those that would impose means-testing on upper-income Medicare recipients.
Republicans counter that the spending cuts were informally agreed on in the deficit-reduction super committee talks and in the negotiations between House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Vice President Joe Biden. Democrats argue those cuts were only viable if Republicans agreed to raise taxes. Since Republicans killed the 1.9 percent surtax on millionaires Democrats proposed to finance a one-year payroll tax cut extension, Democrats don’t feel bound by any previous spending cut agreements.
So it’s unclear what House Republicans would accept short of the House bill.
The White House is in no mood to concede further ground to Republicans, having already agreed to a 60-day decision timeline on the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The White House also objects to House GOP efforts to strip out $43 billion for the health care law, and Senate Democrats disagree with efforts to increase Medicare premiums for seniors earning more than $80,000 in 2017.
In other words, the policy differences are vast, the sense of political antipathy acidic – even by low pH standards of contemporary politics, and the time remaining dwindling fast. Congress is stuck. House Republicans are the sticking agent, standing immovably on behalf of what they regard as solid principles, but which may prove politically hazardous.
It is up to the House GOP leaders to steer their conference to a compromise – one that can satisfy infuriated Senate Democrats and a White House that believes it dominates the public opinion high ground.
House Republicans think they are derailing the Senate bill. They are doing much more. They are placing upon their shoulders the responsibility to create a new outcome – one they cannot yet envision, define, or possibly even find the votes for internally to support.