Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011 | 5:17 p.m.
And it came to pass on Thursday, that there went out a decree from House Speaker John Boehner that all House Republicans should vote for the short-term payroll tax bill.
Call it the Christmas spirit or just a sobering reading of public’s reaction to Congress these last few days, but Boehner’s decision to push the House to pass the two-month extension of unemployment insurance and the payroll tax cut is bringing an entrenched holiday standoff to an end, saving assistance for the long-term jobless and take-home pay for workers who are employed.
It also gives a special gift to Sen. Harry Reid: a major strategic victory.
Last weekend, Reid struck a bargain with Sen. Mitch McConnell, leader of the Republicans in the Senate.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had been aiming to strike a yearlong bargain to extend low payroll taxes (the Social Security-directed tax rate was temporarily lowered from 6.2 to 4.2 percent last December), unemployment checks, and appropriate reimbursements to doctors who take Medicare and Medicaid patients. But they couldn’t agree on how to pay for it.
The two-month deal — which passed the Senate by a vote of 89 to 10 — is an interim compromise to tide things over until a longer-term deal can be made.
But since the Senate passed it, it’s also become a political football between Republicans in the two chambers of Congress.
Most House Republicans, including Nevada Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei, said they thought the two-month bill was nothing more than Congress punting on the issue and voted instead to appoint eight from their ranks to a conference committee in hopes that they would sit down with senators and hash out a longer bill.
Reid and Sen. Dean Heller called the move a politically motivated delaying tactic and demanded the two-month version be passed.
The impasse seemed unbreakable until Thursday morning, when McConnell suggested the two sides’ demands were not mutually exclusive: the House could acquiesce to the Senate’s demand to pass a short-term bill, while the Senate good comply with the House’s demands to appoint conferees to a committee to work out a longer-term deal.
In the end, that was exactly the deal Reid and Boehner agreed to Thursday afternoon, with one technical correction: a change to provide some fluidity to the payroll tax processing for employers (many Republicans, including Heck, had raised the concern that the deal as drafted would be impossible to implement otherwise). Aides to House Republicans said Thursday the promise that the Senate would appoint conferees also gave them some solace that there was a pathway to a long-term deal and the process would go forward.
But there’s no looming deadline for those conference committee members, aside from the two-month timeline that’s set by the expiration date of the short-term bill. And besides, the senators who voted for the short-term extension, Democrat and Republican, had said all along they eventually wanted a longer-term bill.
Given that the senators got everything they said they wanted, this would seem to come as a win for Reid. Even in House Republicans circles, there’s an acknowledgement that they were losing the political message to Reid on the issue.
House Republicans met Thursday evening at 5 p.m. in Washington for a conference call to talk through the deal and decide whether they would agree to let Boehner pass the bill by unanimous consent or insist on flying back to Washington to vote on the deal before or after Christmas.
Democratic aides said Thursday evening they were expecting to receive the slightly corrected House version of the compromise bill by Friday morning and would pass it by unanimous consent — an arrangement that lets both houses of Congress pass the deal without having to drag anyone who isn’t already in D.C. back to town.
That also means lawmakers in the House will not get to register their individual “yea” or “nay” votes on the compromise as the Senate did — a point Democrats already seem to be seizing to blame Republicans for what they’re framing as a near-catastrophe in the run-up to 2012.
“This should have been a no-brainer, but instead Tea Party Republicans held Nevada’s middle class families hostage to their extreme Wall Street agenda,” Rep. Shelley Berkley said in a statement released Thursday after congressional leaders announced the deal.
Spokesmen for Amodei and Heck — who had opposed the two-month measure — did not immediately comment on the process Thursday afternoon.
But for now, this deal between Reid and Boehner seems to be a sign unto America that there is some peace in Congress and good will toward working men and women — at least until next year.
“Extending the payroll tax and unemployment insurance will benefit Nevadans greatly. Now that Congress has moved beyond this impasse, we can work on a yearlong extension,” Heller said.
“I am grateful that the voices of reason have prevailed and Speaker Boehner has agreed to pass the Senate’s bipartisan compromise...But there remain important differences between the parties on how to implement these policies,” Reid said in a statement. “Two months is not a long time, and I expect the negotiators to work expeditiously to forge year-long extensions of these critical policies.”