02.17.12

Congressional GOP Caves on Payroll-Tax Extension, Ducks a Fight With Obama

Tired of watching the president claim the mantle of middle-class protector, the Republicans in Congress caved in on the payroll-tax extension vote.

“It’s a done deal,” a member of the House Republican leadership told me of the payroll-tax extension agreement negotiated between the Republican House and the Senate Democrats. “Nobody cares. That’s it.” 

I pressed on the details of how the Republican-led House had transformed itself from last December, when it fought the White House and the Democrats over the same deal, insisting that it had to be paid for by cuts in spending and that it could not include more pork such as unemployment extensions.

“Yeah, well, it’s old news. They worked it out.” He was speaking of Senate Finance Committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus of Montana for the Democrats and House Committee on Ways and Means chairman Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan for the Republicans. “We got nothing except we got rid of it, so the president can’t beat us over the head with it.”

I asked about the pay-for? The media reports put the total price tag of the payroll-tax extension, the unemployment-benefits extension, and the fix of Medicare payments to doctors at $150 billion. The only mention of any revenue to be raised to offset the costs is additional telecommunications auctions and a concession that new federal workers will pay more for their pensions. In sum, dimes tossed into a river of red ink. There is also talk of cuts to help defray the costs, but the details remain murky and unfinished.  

There’s no pay-for,” admitted my informant. “We gave them what they wanted. We wanted to cut by the end of the year 99 weekers in certain high-employment states to 59 weeks. But in order to get it done, we had to make it 73 weeks. It’s done.”

I asked what has happened that House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and their Tea Party–fueled majority would concede so much and so quickly.  

We have no choice,” my informant told me. “Because our frontrunners are fighting among each other and talking about nothing. We’re trying to avoid becoming fodder for the president. I guess the one thing that we do get out of giving up is that the president can no longer pretend to be the champion of the middle class.”

I summarized that the Republican House cannot present a position of principal about the deficits and the entitlement troubles when the men contending to be the nominees are not talking about the same issues.

“Our big guys are awful. Our frontrunner, Romney, if he is our frontrunner, he’s just like Obama. They listen to their pollsters. They talk the same way, and they both say it well. The difference is that Obama is hiding his left-wing agenda, and Romney has no agenda. We have a frontrunner who has no plan. Even if he were for one thing, it would be helpful. But what’s Romney for? Santorum, he’s about social issues, and if he's at the top of the ticket, we might as well all get new jobs in New York. If it’s Gingrich, well, I don’t want to think about it.” 

“I guess the one thing that we do get out of giving up is that the president can no longer pretend to be the champion of the middle class.”

We went over the details of the settlement between the GOP and the Democrats that had taken five months of feverish partisanship to come to a cool, quiet end in mid February. For $150 billion added to the deficit, the Republican Party inspired by the Tea Party election of 2010 had nothing of principal to show. Concessions, manipulations, promises, adjustments, guesses, can-kicking down the yellow brick road. The best that can be said for the wrangling is that the final deal is only one third the size of the original $50 billion request by the White House. 

“Old news,” said my informant, and he made it clear it was time to change the subject to something that wasn’t about losing.