How the Republicans Blew the Payroll Tax Debate

Republicans have blown the politics of the payroll and pipeline showdown.

Tom Williams, CQ Roll Call / Getty Images

There is no just-in-time deal for the so-called payroll and pipeline bill, and that means you are likely going to see a 2% cut in your first paycheck of 2012. This is the WMD option for the parties and the White House. The House and Senate have departed the city. The House GOP has appointed conferees, who are waiting to meet with . . . no one . . . to resolve the conflict, because neither Majority Leader Harry Reid nor Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi intends to appoint conferees or to bargain.

Instead, our national leaders choose to negate any conciliatory alternatives in order to blame the other guy for the failure once the American people realize they are paying for Congress’s premeditated disorder.

“It’s Groundhog Day Year, it’s the same brinksmanship again,” asserts one of the GOP House members chosen by leadership to be a conferee for the deal. “Speaker [John] Boehner doesn’t want confrontation, he’s a consensus leader. But the ideological fight, that’s what the Democrats want. We’re here, ready to work to solve this. Mitch McConnell gave Harry Reid unanimous consent to name conferees. To my knowledge, he won’t.”

Another GOP member familiar with the leadership comments on this brinksmanship scenario for both sides. “[The Democrats] are going to see how the polling goes. Already, I’ve seen [Obama adviser David] Axelrod on TV saying that we threw a monkey wrench in the bill. Right now, the Democrats think they’re winning. Their strongest argument is that this was a bipartisan agreement in the Senate. Here we are at Christmas. There’ll be a lot of nonsense for the rest of this week. The polling won’t start again till next week, and it will be Wednesday [Dec. 27] before anyone wakes up.”

How did we get into this tangle? How did the House GOP pass a bill for a year-long extension of the payroll tax and then get dry-gulched by a Senate that passed a two-month extension overwhelmingly, 89-10, as a compromise?

“It was hastily put together in the Senate,” I am told by a professional wag. “Something went very wrong last Saturday.”

“[Senate GOP leader Mitch] McConnell doesn’t do anything without checking with Boehner,” a House member outside of leadership tells me. “And Boehner doesn’t do anything without checking with his leadership team. These are consensus guys. What you can figure is that Boehner told his leadership, and they knew there was a risk that the members would bolt, and they took the risk. Now Boehner is manning up and taking the heat for his own team.”

I asked a Republican conferee if the Senate vote for a two-month extension was a surprise.

“I was struck dumb,” was the response. “It was very disappointing. I’ve certainly heard it from business organizations. And from the Facebook page. It’s utterly ridiculous. Two months, come on. I’d like to hear how those senators who voted for this explain it. I’d like to hear from [Utah’s] Mike Lee, [Florida’s] Marco Rubio.”

Another Republican member also looks suspiciously at the Senate Republicans. “Boehner and [Majority Leader Eric] Cantor and [Majority Whip Kevin] McCarthy are on the same page. I’m not so sure that something happened. They had to know what the Senate was doing. [The Senate] punted. Rubio and Lee, I’d like an explanation. That’s what conservatives should be asking. I don’t mind Rubio. But Lee is one of the [Tea Party] guys throwing us under the bus.”

There is blame for the House leadership, also. “Look at who they have down at the mic leading the charge to reject the Senate bill. [Conference Chair Jeb] Hensarling and “[Study Committee Policy Chairman Tom] Price. They’re not beauty queens. At some point, they were told that the two months was a possibility in the Senate. They thought it wouldn’t be a deal breaker, or they would have worked it with McConnell. They were wrong, and now they’re leading us to vote against what they let happen. Hensarling, Price, Cantor, McCarthy. This the team Boehner wanted. Our leaders.”

Through all this analysis of the fiasco, there is a sense of doom for the Republican House. They have gone out on an ice floe with no obvious way back to shore. The lapidarian Wall Street Journal editorial page now declares that the Republicans “have thoroughly botched the politics” of the payroll tax.

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One partisan wit credits Harry Reid and Barack Obama for recognizing their opportunity and seizing the day. “Harry Reid tells us to go to Hell, and he and the Democrats are enjoying this. [President] Obama beats our brains out with this. They’ll drag this out as long as they can. I don’t see us coming back before the first week of the year. We’re so bad off that we’re blamed for trying to give the American people a 12-month tax break while the Democrats are giving them a two-month tax break that people say can’t work, and they get praised. Nobody is going to pay attention to this until it hits.”

There is a strong possibility that President Obama will nurse the grievance against the Republican Party, and the Tea Party particularly, until the State of the Union. “Obama can pound the GOP in the speech. The Democrats will whoop and holler. They’ll throw rose petals on him. Obama hates the pipeline. This is tailor-made for him.”

The payroll-tax mutually assured destruction of the House and Senate does provide melodramatic proof that the 11% approval rating for Congress is not a fluke, and will be regarded as the good old days a month from now.