Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is probably starting to feel a little lonely.
A day after his GOP troops rejected a bipartisan compromise to extend a payroll tax break for 160 million Americans for two months, Boehner’s House Republicans are taking heat from across the political spectrum, from the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page and 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain to President Obama.
The escalating criticism of House Republicans’ tactical decision has an increasing number of Congress-watchers in Washington asking when and how – not if – Boehner and company will acquiesce in the payroll-tax wars. The tax break, along with emergency unemployment benefits, expires on Dec. 31.
Boehner and his top lieutenants maintained their ground on Wednesday in a blitz of media appearances, seeking to place blame alternately on Obama and on vacationing Senate Democrats, even as their own support eroded. “We’re here. We’re ready to go to work,” Boehner said at a made-for-TV “meeting” of payroll-tax negotiators he has appointed.
That only House Republicans were in the room was telling. In rejecting a payroll package that cleared the Senate 89-10, is supported by the president, and was negotiated by his Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Boehner has isolated the House GOP.
McConnell’s own silence in the fight has been deafening. He has made no public appearances to back Boehner. Instead, his office has issued only a lukewarm statement to support the speaker’s call for a conference to hash out the chambers’ differences. By midday on Wednesday, unnamed Senate GOP leadership aides had begun sniping at the speaker’s strategy in the press.
“It’s backfiring politically,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “There’s a growing crescendo. The drumbeat is simply going to increase, and they will come back and do it.”
Democrats have demanded that the speaker pass the Senate package. He wants to reopen negotiations. At risk in the brinksmanship battle is about $1,000 in reduced annual payroll taxes for 160 million workers and unemployment benefits for millions more.
The fight has inverted some of the usual political fault lines: Suddenly, Democrats and Obama are the tax-cutters and Republicans are dragging their feet.
“This should be impossible,” said the scathing Wall Street Journal editorial. “At this stage, Republicans would do best to cut their losses and find a way to extend the payroll-holiday quickly.”
McCain, R-Ariz., called the opinion piece “right on the mark” on Twitter. A day earlier, McCain told CNN that the ongoing payroll battle is “harming the Republican Party.”
Four other GOP senators who are on the ballot in 2012 – Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Dean Heller of Nevada, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Olympia Snowe of Maine – have each denounced the House’s blockade of the package. The opposition of those on the electoral front lines underscores the perceived political risks in Boehner’s approach. And perceived risk is everything in a legislative staring contest.
Still, Boehner has reasons to stand tough. His aggressive posture has solidified his grip on his fractious and conservative conference. When the speaker reeled off a one-liner on Tuesday, demanding, “I need the president to help out” in the payroll-tax stalemate, the dozens of GOP lawmakers at his side hollered in approval.
“If Boehner holds firm, he may score points,” said Keith Appell, a Republican political strategist, arguing that the sstandoff could energize the GOP grassroots.
One critical problem for Boehner is that the concessions he has wrung out of Obama and the Democrats – namely, a provision forcing a decision on a controversial oil pipeline – have all but disappeared from the debate.
Also drowned out in the torrent of strategic second-guessing has been Boehner’s message of procedure and policy. The speaker has maintained that the two-month tax-cut extension that the Senate engineered is unworkable compared with the one-year package that the House already approved. He has called for a formal conference to resolve the two chambers’ differences; the Senate has said no.
Such wonkish procedural arguments have found little to no traction in the face of a looming tax increase on paychecks. That’s especially true when the man calling for proper order has shown himself willing to flout it: Boehner has stripped committees of much power and influence as speaker, opting to make most decisions and write most legislation at the leadership level.
Democrats, who feel they have the upper hand in the standoff, show no sign of budging. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., fired off a letter to Boehner demanding an up-or-down vote on the Senate package. And the president called Boehner to tell him that this is “the only option to ensure that middle-class families aren’t hit with a tax hike in 10 days,” according to the White House.
Schumer feigned sympathy for the GOP leader’s predicament on Wednesday. “Now, I feel for Speaker Boehner,” he said. “They should realize that they’re just in a cul-de-sac.”