Behind John Boehner’s Debacle on the Payroll Tax Cut Battle

Patricia Murphy on how the payroll tax-cut deal came undone—and how long Boehner can survive as speaker.

When John Lewis goes to the well of the House, as he did Tuesday, and scolds Republicans for blocking a tax cut, you know they’ve got a problem. “It is sinful. It is a disgrace. It is unforgivable. It is unbelievable,” the civil rights icon yelled at GOP members in the packed House chamber. “Where is your compassion? Where is your heart? Where is your soul?”

Lewis was one of dozens of Democrats who lashed out against the Republicans for their move to block the payroll tax-cut compromise forged last week by the Senate leaders, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, and passed by the upper chamber by a whopping 89 to 10. That bill would have extended the payroll tax rate at 4.2 percent, down from 6.2 percent, until February, as well as unemployment benefits and Medicare doctors’ reimbursement rates, while the House and Senate find a way to strike a longer-term deal in the new year.

Republicans ended last week with 39 of their senators voting for the agreement, but began this week with House conservatives in open mutiny against it, uniformly panning it for causing uncertainty for businesses and doctors, and accusing Democrats of “kicking the can down the road” on Washington’s tough decisions.

The can-kicking part is true enough. Democrats have been so unwilling to cut spending, or take the blame for increasing an already bloated federal budget, that they haven’t passed a budget in nearly three years. Any mall shopper can tell you that stuffing your American Express bill in a drawer makes it seem like you’ve spent nothing at all, and Democratic senators know the feeling well.

But Republican finger-wagging over the uncertainty caused by the two-month fix was hard to square with the all-out chaos that followed House Speaker John Boehner’s announcement Sunday that he and his people would not go along with the Senate bill after all, even though he told Reid and McConnell they would. Relieved senators had skipped town over the weekend with their bags packed for Christmas. As things stand now, they will return well after the payroll tax rate jumps back to its old level, doctors get paid 27 percent less for each Medicare patient they see, and people out of work more than 26 weeks realize they have no unemployment checks coming in January to help pay their bills.

What happened between Boehner’s agreement to follow the Senate’s lead and his tacit admission that his own caucus had overruled him? Aides and House members describe a now-infamous caucus conference call Saturday morning, when rank-and-file members blasted the Boehner-blessed deal, which they felt gave in on too many of their demands and delivered too little in return.

A closed door meeting Monday night revealed more doubts from conservatives over whether Boehner had pushed for the best deal they could have gotten and fueled Democratic frustration that Boehner, who they believe negotiated in good faith, simply cannot speak for his caucus anymore. The debacle capped a tumultuous year for the speaker, reigniting questions about how much longer he can lead the unwieldy GOP coalition, many of whose members clearly have no interest in following him where he wants to go.

Publicly, Boehner and House Republicans presented a united front this week, blaming President Obama for shortening a tax cut they say they have wanted to pass all along. But Democrats blamed a group of Republicans they’ve dubbed “the kamikazes,” the GOP freshmen who arrived in January on a wave of Tea Party anger and have shown time and again that they are willing to blow up their careers and everything around them in service to their cause.

The kamikazes’ casualty list this year is long. They blew up the debt-ceiling vote this summer, sparking a downgrade in the nation’s credit rating. They blew up the appropriations process so thoroughly that routine spending votes morphed into philosophical standoffs that nearly locked down the federal government three times and required seven temporary funding patches just to keep the lights on. And this week, they managed to blow up not just a tax cut that nearly everyone in Washington agrees is a good idea, but also their party’s hard-earned reputation for cutting taxes and, quite possibly, their chances at a long-term majority in the House and future control of the Senate.

Most Americans support cutting spending, cutting taxes, and shrinking deficits, all organizing principles of the Tea Party when the movement sent nearly 90 new members to populate the House GOP’s ranks after the 2010 elections. But their decision again and again to stop a bill instead of modifying it, to reject a proposal instead of changing it, has put House Republicans in a suicide pact with themselves, tying Boehner’s hands and then walking him and their entire caucus off a plank together.

Several of the freshmen complained last week that their basement-level poll numbers are the fault of their leadership, which they said has bungled their reform message and confused voters into thinking the change they’re delivering isn’t the change they wanted after all. Gallup’s latest poll shows the current Congress, including the Republican-led House, with 11 percent approval, the lowest rating since the organization began asking the question decades ago.

One of those frustrated freshmen, Rep. Allen West, complained that the GOP has failed to match the power of Obama’s built-in bully pulpit, which West said has convinced Americans that the only people in evil-doing Washington at all are House Republicans.

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But West went on to illustrate why Boehner is having a hard time accentuating the positive, praising Obama’s “propaganda machine” as one that would make Joseph Goebbels proud. West caught himself, of course, and went to some effort with reporters to walk back his comments connecting the Democrats to Nazis. But not very much. “I’m talking about propaganda. So please. I’ll be prepared to wake up tomorrow and you guys make up some crazy story. Whatever,” West said.

After the House voted Tuesday to create a conference committee with the Senate to find another compromise on the payroll tax cut package, Reid said he’d already found a Republican compromise—with Mitch McConnell—and voted on it last week. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she had no intention of appointing members to a conference committee that should not exist, and House Republicans, after complaining bitterly this week that the Senate had skipped town before finalizing the tax cut, held a press conference and started to leave town themselves, promising to come back to Washington if necessary, but getting out of Dodge in the meantime.

As lawmakers left the presser and piled into their individual getaway cars trying to escape the Capitol at plane-catching pace, the mass dash for the exits left Republican lawmakers snarled in afternoon gridlock, going nowhere fast, on Independence Avenue.