The Republicans in the Senate were getting nervous. The House had passed an extension of the payroll tax holiday for a year in a bill so overly partisan that it had no chance to pass in the Senate. They believed the Democrats were engaging in demagoguery by saying that the Republicans refuse to raise taxes on the very wealthy but don’t mind the working middle class paying more.
Nobody liked the idea of a two month extension, but intense negotiations between both parties, which included John Boehner, yielded that compromise. It would buy time for them to reach broader agreement on a year extension after the holidays. The deal sailed through the Senate 89-10, with overwhelming bipartisan support. Speaker Boehner indicated the House would vote the deal through as well, and it appeared that the two sides managed to avoid giving the middle class a higher tax bill in January.
Then the rumbling started. Republicans in the House complained that they shouldn’t yield again to the Senate, and that a two month extension was meaningless. Lead by the tea party freshman, the House GOP revolted against Boehner and soon he was backtracking. The House turned down the extension and called for a Conference Committee to come together to patch up the differences between the Senate and House bills.
For Democrats, that’s a non-starter. First, the Senate bill was a compromise, negotiated between the two parties with Boehner indicating he approved of the agreement. Given that, a conference committee would not only be inappropriate, but if they couldn’t quickly come to agreement then both parties would share blame for not being able to extend the tax break. Why should the Democrats risk that? This way the onus is solely on the GOP.
If the Senate GOP hadn’t sided with the Democrats (with many Republican Senators urging the House to pass the two month extension) then the Republicans in the House would have some political wiggle room. As it is, they are finding it impossible to spin this as a failure of both parties — it’s a failure of the House Republicans.
Republicans who supported the measure in the Senate include budget hawk Tom Coburn, tea party stalwarts Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio, and of course Mitch McConnell (who was reportedly convinced Boehner would be able to get the measure through). Only seven Republicans voted “no.” This was a done deal.
Perhaps the House GOP thought that they could play Russian roulette with this issue like they did with the debt ceiling earlier this year, forcing the Senate and President to cave to some of their demands so they could claim victory and make the President look weak. Yet the debt ceiling was a serious issue. If it hadn’t been raised there would have been global economic turmoil and havoc for the US economy.
On this issue Democrats see themselves as having little at risk. They’re the ones who are calling for an extension, they worked out a bipartisan compromise, President Obama was ready to sign it, and the Republicans in the House moved the goalposts. Many Democrats see this as the first pivotal moment in the 2012 election cycle, whereby the Democrats nail home the argument that it’s GOP obstruction and extremism that is causing dysfunction in Washington politics.
Moreover the symbolism of the Republicans caring more about avoiding tax increases on the wealthy than imposing them on the middle class make this a dream issue for the Democrats going into 2012. If class war is being waged, it looks like the Republicans in the House want to wage it on the middle class. Exasperated Senate Republicans are furious, both at the tea party wing in the House, but also at Boehner for breaking another promise. It’s not that Boehner wants to break promises, it’s just that his caucus won’t follow him. The result is a Christmas gift for the Democrats.
John Boehner is proving to be a weak Speaker of the House. He got lucky with the debt ceiling debacle because even though he had indicated to the President he wanted a grand deal that could include closing tax loopholes, the President got punished in public opinion polls when Boehner couldn’t deliver. This time he’s not going to be that lucky. If he can manage to pass an extension early next year and make the issue go away as soon as possible he might limit damage. Otherwise, 2011 ends with the House GOP delivering a self-inflicted wound that could have profound ramifications for the 2012 election.