WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stepped into the fractious payroll tax cut extension standoff between the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate Thursday — a move that upped the ante in the high stakes debate and pushed House GOP leadership toward a tentative resolution.
“With today’s agreement between the Speaker (John Boehner) and Leader (Harry)Reid, working Americans can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that their taxes will not go up at the end of the year,” McConnell said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, McConnell asked the House to pass a short term stop gap and the Senate to agree to discuss a more permanent solution. The Kentucky Republican laid out what he saw as room for compromise in House and Senate passed bipartisan bills to require the president to quickly make a decision on whether to support thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs through the Keystone XL pipeline, and to extend unemployment insurance, the temporary payroll tax cut and seniors’ access to medical care.
“There is no reason why Congress and the president cannot accomplish all of these things before the end of the year,” McConnell said. “House Republicans sensibly want greater certainty about the duration of these provisions, while Senate Democrats want more time to negotiate the terms. These goals are not mutually exclusive. We can and should do both.”
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During a speech on Thursday, President Barack Obama echoed McConnell’s calls to negotiate a payroll tax deal.
“This isn’t a typical Democratic-versus-Republican issue,” Obama said. “This is an issue where an overwhelming number of people in both parties agree. How can we not get that done? I mean, has this place become so dysfunctional that even when people agree to things we can't do it?”
But it was McConnell’s statements, which followed a week of tense back and forth in the House when many Republican members in that chamber balked at supporting compromise legislation, authored in part by the Kentucky Republican, which registered the most surprise in political circles and pushed House Republican leadership to come back to the table, political experts say.
McConnell’s move offers high ranking negotiators, including his Republican colleague House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Democrats Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. and President Barack Obama, escape hatches. Meanwhile, McConnell, who in the past has said he wants to help the GOP take back the White House, looks like a statesman, political experts say.
“Nobody has ever challenged or doubted McConnell’s political sagacity,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “It’s been clear for the past couple of days is that Republicans were taking a beating on this and they looked like idiots and they had to find a way out that would at least leave John Boehner with some kind of fig leaf.”
Over the weekend, despite disappointments on both side of the aisle, the Senate approved a measure to assure 160 million people that they'll get a Social Security tax break for two more months. McConnell spoke with Boehner after the vote, according to McConnell staffers, and gave the House leader a gist of the measure.
However, it soon became clear that House Republicans were opposed to the plan. "It's pretty clear that I and our members oppose the Senate bill," Boehner, R-Ohio, told NBC's "Meet the Press." Republicans, he said, want a longer-term fix.
Boehner was reflecting the view of many House Republicans, who complained loudly in a conference call about the deal hours after the Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure on Saturday.
Reid, reacted angrily. "Instead of threatening middle-class families with a thousand-dollar tax hike, Speaker Boehner should bring up the bipartisan compromise that McConnell and I negotiated, and which passed the Senate with an overwhelming majority of Democratic and Republican votes," Reid said. "I would hate to think that Speaker Boehner is refusing to act on this bipartisan compromise because he is afraid it will actually pass, but I cannot imagine any other reason why he would not bring it up for a vote."
Then, for days, McConnell commenced radio silence as some GOP leaders and even the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board criticized how congressional Republicans handled the payroll tax debate.
“The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote earlier this week. “Republicans have also achieved the small miracle of letting Mr. Obama position himself as an election-year tax cutter, although he's spent most of his Presidency promoting tax increases and he would hit the economy with one of the largest tax increases ever in 2013. This should be impossible.”
McConnell’s silence was conspicuous, Ornstein said.
“He waited and let others from Newt Gingrich to the Wall Street Journal bash Boehner like a piñata and let it sink it with some of the rank and file members of the house. He waited until they knew they had gotten themselves into a mess.”
Mere hours after McConnell issued his call for cooperation, Boehner appeared before the Capitol Hill press corps and announced a compromise.
“Senator Reid and I have reached an agreement that will ensure taxes do not increase for working families on January 1 while ensuring that a complex new reporting burden is not unintentionally imposed on small business job creators,” Boehner said.
David Lightman in Washington contributed.
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