Senate Democrats and the White House are executing a strategy to prevent House Republicans from jamming them with legislation to extend the current payroll tax cut that’s been larded up with GOP goodies, according to White House and Congressional aides. For all practical purposes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has linked the payroll tax issue — and other key end-of-the-year issues — with legislation to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. And he’s presenting Republicans with a choice: deal in good faith on the payroll tax issue, or trigger a government shutdown.
Democrats were worried that House Republicans would close ranks around a version of a payroll holiday that included both must-pass items (such as an extension of unemployment insurance and a patch to prevent Medicare physicians from experiencing a severe pay cut on the first of the year) and GOP poison pills (including a provision forcing the Obama administration to give thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the Keystone XL oil pipeline within 60 days)…then pass it and skip town, leaving Democrats little choice but to swallow their bill whole.
That’s exactly the strategy they tried to execute — and until late Monday it looked like it might work.
The appropriations work was nearly complete and Republican aides were pushing the idea that umbrella legislation to fund most of the government lay on a separate table from the payroll holiday. If the appropriations bills were to pass smoothly, House Republicans could have separately lobbed Senate Dems their payroll bill, and left for the holidays knowing the government wouldn’t shut down.
That’s when Democratic aides started rumbling that the appropriations bills weren’t ready to go. Indeed, according to top aides Reid is negotiating them as a unit with the payroll tax cut and other issues to limit the GOP’s ability to extract Democratic concessions. That means the GOP will have one shot — not two — at forcing the Dems to adopt their riders, and Dems are pressing Republicans to nix five of them: a continued ban on public funding of abortions in DC; a rescission of funding for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission; a measure allowing the Defense Department to count coal as a source of renewable energy; a rider banning the Department of Energy from spending money to encourage a shift to fluorescent lightbulbs; and tightened restrictions on travel to Cuba.
Now, in a twist on a theme that has dominated legislative politics on Capitol Hill all year, GOP aides are complaining that Democrats are taking hostages.
That sets the parties up for another showdown with only three days to go before the government shuts down.
The House is scheduled to vote on the GOP payroll bill Tuesday afternoon, and Democratic leadership is whipping against it.
“This is a partisan bill sticking the finger in the eye of those who disagree with the non-germane policies that are included — included simply for the purposes of energizing a small political base in their party,” House Dem Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters at his weekly Capitol briefing Tuesday. “The overwhelming majority of our members will be voting no…. Our expectation is that if they’re going to pass this thing they need 218 Republicans. We’re not going to pass their bill for them.”
If it passes — a pretty big if, given the difficulty Republicans have had rounding up 218 votes for must-pass bills — it’s DOA in the Senate and the parties then have a choice. They can put their heads together to pass all of these items on a bipartisan basis; they can punt and keep funding the government on a short term basis and drag the payroll tax issue out for another couple weeks; or they can shut the government down on Friday, and, perhaps, allow the the payroll tax cut, and extended unemployment benefits to expire on January 1.
“There is a concern that we would pass the megabus [appropriations bills] and that Republicans would then go home,” Hoyer said. “Speaker Boehner has assured me they will not leave without addressing and doing the middle class tax cut…or the unemployment insurance.”
Hoyer predicted that Tuesday’s maneuvering would focus the minds of GOP and Dem leaders to reconcile all of these issues by the end of the week — and that the House would stand ready to adopt Senate-passed legislation at a moment’s notice.
“Once the Senate passes something…my belief is that we would meet shortly thereafter, within 24 hours, to address that issue,” Hoyer told reporters. “Once [the House payroll bill] passes or fails, hopefully that will focus the mind with 72 hours left before the government…runs out of authority to operate.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.