Congress in Stalemate Over Payroll Tax Cut, Unemployment Checks

The House set in motion a high stakes game of chicken with the Senate after blocking a short-term proposal to extend unemployment checks for the jobless and a tax break for workers and then left town while the stalemate simmers.

The measure objecting to the Senate deal Tuesday prevailed on a mostly party line vote 229 to 193, and requires that Congress now resolve its differences in a conference committee.

House Republicans originally sent the Senate a bill extending the provisions expiring Dec. 31 for one year, plus a two-year extension for Medicare reimbursement for doctors, and language requiring President Barack Obama to make a decision on the XL Keystone pipeline within 60 days.

The Senate responded on Saturday by passing a two-month extension instead, then adjourned until Jan. 23 angering House Republicans who are insisting the Senate return to Washington and renegotiate the differences in a conference committee.

However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D. – Nev.) is refusing to reconvene the Senate and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D. – Calif.) says she will not appoint Democrats to a conference committee leaving the Congress in a standoff that threatens to kill the tax break and unemployment extension on New Year’s Eve.

 “Our economy is too weak and the American people have been struggling for far too long for Congress not to work out our differences,” said Rep. Dave Camp (R. – Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“This is not a difference over policy, but the House deciding to act and the Senate not deciding to act on so many policies,” Camp said.

Pelosi blamed the impasse on “radical Tea Party Republicans (who) are holding up this tax cut for the American people and jeopardizing growth.”

Moments after the House action, President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance at the White House press briefing and called on House Speaker John Boehner (R. – Ohio) to pass the Senate’s two month version.

“Let’s not play brinksmanship,” Obama said.

Boehner has been accused of originally agreeing to the Senate deal, which passed on a bipartisan vote of 89-10. But the speaker says he only supported the inclusion of the pipeline language, and that a two-month tax extension is “kicking the can down the road” to another political showdown when it expires Feb. 29.

Obama as well as House Democrats originally asked for the one-year provision.

“All we are asking is that our colleagues come back to town to resolve our differences and do it right for once,” Boehner said. “There’s no disagreement here at all.”

Rep. Austin Scott (R. – Ga.), asked the president to stand with House Republicans, who he says are doing as he requested. The one-year extension on the Social Security payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits are the centerpiece of Obama’s package to get Americans back to work.

“The Senate put a bad amendment on a good bill,” Scott said. “Twelve months is what the president asked for, twelve months is what we did. The Senate, in their haste to get out of town, did it for 60 days.”

Rep. David Drier (R. – Calif.), chairman of the House Rules Committee, said Republicans needed to request the conference committee because the Senate has left town and refuses to act further on the matter.

“We’re going to see a tax increase go into effect if we don’t act,” Drier said. “We need to make sure this work gets done as quickly as possible and we are here, prepared to do it.”

House Majority Leader Eric Canton (R. – Va.) said the Senate’s two-month plan is unworkable.

“Families, workers, can’t live their lives month to month,” Cantor said. “Washington needs to stop adding uncertainty and confusion to more people’s lives. A two month patch is irresponsible…we believe all Americans deserve certainty.”

Seven Republicans voted against sending the bill to the conference committee including Reps. Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, Chris Gibson of New York, Tim Johnson of Illinois, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Frank Wolf of Virginia.

Flake said he opposed the tax break extension because it will hasten the insolvency of Social Security and exacerbate the country’s fiscal crisis.

 “Even worse, we’re using dishonest budget gimmicks that supposedly pay for this one-year extension with spending cuts or new fees over ten years that we all know will never materialize,” Flake said.

Democrats said they were frustrated with Republicans for not allowing a straight up or down vote on the Senate’s plan to allow the provisions to continue for two months until a better deal could be resolved.

“It’s because you are afraid you will lost it,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D. – Mich.). “Your talk about bipartisanship is totally shallow. This is a smokescreen and all Americans will see through it.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D. – Texas) said “the jokers have taken control of the Congress” by taking the dispute to the conference committee – “a procedural calamity that will not work.”

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R. – Texas), chairman of the House Republican Conference, suggested Democrats refresh their memory on how congress resolves its differences – going to the conference committee – by watching “Schoolhouse Rock.”

“We stand willing to work over the holidays to get this done,” Hensarling said.

Conference committees are typically called when the House and Senate pass two different versions of the same bill, particularly spending measures. Appointed by the leaders, these temporary negotiators resolve the differences of the two versions and then each house passes the final product called a conference report without amendments.

Cantor said the House would technically remain in session as necessary, so that any conference report can be called up with 24 hours for a vote.

The House Republican conferees appointed by Boehner will be expected to remain in Washington over the holiday recess. They include Reps. Camp, Fred Upton of Michigan, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Kevin Brady of Texas, Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, Nan Hayworth of New York, Tom Price of Georgia, Tom Reed of New York, and Greg Walden of Oregon.

Sen. Bob Corker (R. – Tenn.) said the House version makes better public policy, and called on Reid to bring the Senate back to town and work out a better deal.

“Senator Reid should stop this political gamesmanship, call the Senate back into session and follow the regular order of taking both bills to conference to produce better legislation that reflects the will of the House and Senate,” Corker said. “Like most Americans, we should be at work this week and finish the business they elected us to do.”

Some House Republicans expressed stronger sentiments about how Reid is handling the standoff.

“The Senate says it’s my way or the highway,” said Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R. – Ohio). “We need a compromise between the House and the Senate, not between the Senate and the Senate.”

Added Rep. Virginia Foxx (R. – N.C.), “Nobody made Mr. Reid the king, and I don’t think we have to do what Mr. Reid says. I think Mr. Reid has a very high opinion of himself.”