Heat builds on GOP in payroll tax battle
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WASHINGTON -- House Republicans faced mounting pressure Wednesday from critics inside and outside Congress who worry that their standoff with President Barack Obama over whether to extend a payroll tax cut could do lasting damage to the GOP.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is seeking the party's presidential nomination, warned that the showdown could end badly for Republicans, citing his own experience during the 1996 government shutdown in losing the political battle to President Bill Clinton.
"Incumbent presidents have enormous advantages. And I think what Republicans ought to do is what's right for America. They ought to do it calmly and pleasantly and happily," Mr. Gingrich said.
The Wall Street Journal's editorial board captured the frustration among House Republicans in the paper's Wednesday editions, asking whether the GOP's handling of the tax debate "might end up re-electing the president before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest."
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn, said the House GOP must get past the issue. "Are Republicans getting killed now in public opinion? There's no question," he said Wednesday on CNBC. "Both Republicans and Democrats have agreed that this is going to happen, and probably the best thing to happen now is just to get it over with."
In private, the criticism was more stark. Interviews with nearly 10 current and former congressional Republican advisers produced a range of deep criticism.
The most recurring critique was that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., did not sufficiently warn Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about House opposition to the plan, allowing even some of the Senate's staunchest conservatives to support the legislation.
"If they insisted on going down this terrible political path, then at a minimum they all needed to stay here, then, pounding the drum and demanding the Senate Democrats get back to work. They could at least own the microphones and put Obama in a bad situation with his desire to go to Hawaii," said a Senate Republican strategist who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely criticize the House speaker. (Mr. Obama, still at the White House, has been planning to spend the holidays in his home state, where the first lady and his children already are.)
A former aide to House GOP leaders suggested that, at least while the lawmakers are home, they might hear from real people who are concerned about losing their tax and unemployment benefits.
The friendly-fire attacks have threatened to undermine House leaders' position that they did the right thing in rejecting a bipartisan Senate deal to extend the federal payroll tax for two months. The Senate approved the deal Saturday with an overwhelming 89 votes, including 39 from Republicans.
The House rejected it Tuesday, arguing that it was an unacceptable short-term fix, and demanded that Senate Democrats reopen negotiations on a full-year extension of the tax cut. The standoff has put Republicans in the unusual place of having to play defense regarding an effort to lower taxes, a conservative cause for three decades now being turned against them.
Mr. Obama called Mr. Boehner on Wednesday to urge him again to allow a vote on the Senate-passed measure, which also would extend unemployment benefits and avert a cut in the reimbursement rate for doctors who treat Medicare patients. If the payroll tax holiday is not renewed, about 160 million Americans would feel it in their pocketbooks next year; the average worker would pay about $1,000 more over the course of the year.
Mr. Boehner showed no signs of caving to the pressure, either from Mr. Obama or his own allies. He held a meeting Wednesday morning with eight Republicans he chose to negotiate with the Senate and brushed off the criticism, saying his party will retain its advantage on the tax issue.
"We are the party of lower taxes for the American people. We have fought for lower taxes for the 21 years that I've been in this Congress, and we're going to continue to be the party of lower taxes," Mr. Boehner told reporters at the outset of his meeting with Republican lawmakers.
Mr. Obama has made extending that benefit for another year his top priority in a jobs agenda that has otherwise floundered on Capitol Hill. Most Republican leaders have agreed to support the measure as long as offset cuts in spending are made, so the package would not add to the federal deficit. But many of Mr. Boehner's rank-and-file members question the plan's effectiveness and are demanding additional concessions, such as forcing Mr. Obama to make a speedy decision on construction of an environmentally controversial oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
In negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Mr. McConnell won inclusion of the pipeline legislation, but the two leaders agreed upon only $36 billion in spending cuts, which would cover just a two-month extension of the expiring provisions.
Hours after the Senate supported the compromise, House Republicans exploded during a Saturday conference call in opposition to the two-month plan.
The House and the Senate are formally shuttered this week, opening only for brief pro forma sessions at which no legislative business will be performed. Mr. Reid has said he will not open the Senate, and that the House should instead just pass the Reid-McConnell plan and resume negotiations for a longer-term plan next month.
A growing number of Senate Republicans, having approved the short-term extension Saturday, have urged House Republicans to avoid any threat of a tax increase in the new year.
First Published December 22, 2011 12:00 am