Has John Boehner lost control?
Has John Boehner lost control?
First, John Boehner wanted the Senate to pass a payroll tax cut bill. Then, he wanted to make a show of killing it. Now, he won’t hold a House vote on it at all.
In the last and biggest political test of a wild year — Boehner’s final exam for 2012 — the House speaker has shown yet again that he doesn’t have the juice to whip his troops into line. If anything, it is rank-and-file House Republicans who are continually snapping their leader back to the pack when he gets too far out in front of them.
His plans change with their whims, the latest of which is to escalate a battle with a nearly unified Senate and President Barack Obama over a two-month extension of the Social Security payroll tax cut, welfare and unemployment programs, and current Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors.
GOP leaders on Monday abandoned a day-old proposal to vote down the Senate bill, which would have required Republicans to defy their brand by going on record against a tax cut. Now, they’re portraying a procedural vote to create a House-Senate conference as an implicit rejection of the Senate’s bill. Republicans believe they can win a showdown with the Senate and either get the full-year extension of the payroll tax cut they seek or win the public relations war if 160 million working Americans see their taxes rise in January.
It’s a high-risk strategy with little reward available: In the worst-case scenario, House Republicans would take sole blame for raising taxes, cutting welfare and unemployment benefits just after Christmas and slashing reimbursement rates for doctors who treat Medicare patients. House Democrats now sense a potential game-changer for their prospects of winning control of the chamber in 2012, which have been dim.
Some Republicans said privately that they weren’t certain that the strategy would work.
“We’ll find out,” said one.
But the best outcome for House Republicans is that they extract a measure of pain from the Senate, forcing minor concessions in a negotiation where the major sticking point between the two sides is whether the extension of expiring laws lasts for two months or 11 months. Facing vocal opposition from the president, Democrats and even some of their fellow Republicans in the Senate, Republicans could take a shellacking in the court of public opinion even if they manage to rewrite the bill.
Either way, they’re playing into Obama’s plans to run against the widely and deeply unpopular Congress.
Boehner’s camp insists everything is going according to script.
“Our goal, from start to finish, has been to avoid a tax hike, extend and reform unemployment insurance, protect Social Security, and help create jobs. The best way to accomplish that goal right now is for a conference committee to resolve the differences between the House- and Senate-passed bills,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “This is regular order – the system that our Founders created to craft legislation, and House Republicans promised to restore.”
But the endgame reads more like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book than a carefully scripted drama.
And Boehner’s not alone in getting twist-turned upside down. Seeking political advantage in the moment, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are attacking him for suggesting that the two chambers resolve their differences in the time-honored way, by meeting in a conference committee.
“House Republicans claim to support this middle-class tax cut, but they are really trying to bury it in a committee,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement released late Monday night. “Speaker Boehner is using one of the oldest tricks in Washington of claiming to support something and then sending it to the legislative graveyard where it never sees the light of day.”
In more than two decades, Schumer has served on conference committees that created the H-1B visa program, gave extra health insurance benefits to people with disabilities, established the COPS program, and, in the last Congress, enacted the Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulations. There’s little doubt that he could provide a much longer list on command.
Still, it’s clear Democrats believe they have the upper hand — and they’re excited over the prospect of Republicans calling even more attention to the battle over the payroll tax cut.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Assistant Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) held an impromptu press conference late Monday night just a handful of steps from the House floor.
“So, here we are, just a few days before Christmas and the Republicans are just coming up with another excuse,” Pelosi said. “It’s just the ridiculous tea party Republicans who are holding up this tax cut for the American people and jeopardizing economic growth.”
If the battle lines were purely partisan, House Republicans might be on firmer ground. But the Senate passed its version of the bill 89-10 after McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cut a deal. Five Senate Republicans castigated their House colleagues on Monday for not simply passing the Senate bill and ensuring that the tax cut goes through.
“[T]here is no reason to hold up the short-term extension while a more comprehensive deal is being worked out,” Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said, according to the Las Vegas Sun.
But House Republicans say the two-month version is unacceptable to them — even as a patch.
“Frankly, the 60 days pissed a lot of people off, just cutting the package down, taking out all of our reforms that were in there,” Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) said after Monday night’s meeting of the House Republican Conference.
And some are assigning bad motives to their Democratic colleagues.
“I think what this is, is a leverage point for the president to say that — cover for his failures, for him to say that the Republicans are going to raise taxes on the, quote, unquote, middle-class. It will enable him to continue on with his very divisive rhetoric about millionaires and billionaires,” Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) told FOX News’ Greta Van Susteren. “I really think in my heart of hearts that the Democrats do want to see this payroll tax expire so that they can use it going into next year as a political talking point in he election cycle.”
If West is right, House Republicans appear to be playing into their hands — and Boehner has little power to change their course.
Darren Goode contributed to this story.