Washington Congress lurched toward Grinch-like gridlock on Tuesday as the Republican-controlled House rejected a two-month extension of Social Security tax cuts that President Barack Obama said was “the only viable way” to prevent a drop in take-home pay for 160 million workers on Jan. 1.
“The clock is ticking; time is running out,” Obama said shortly after House voted 229-193 to request negotiations with the Senate on renewing the payroll tax cuts for a year.
House Speaker John Boehner, told that Obama had sought his help, replied, “I need the president to help out.” His voice rose as he said it, and his words were cheered by dozens of Republicans lawmakers who have pushed him and the rest of the leadership to pursue a more confrontational strategy with Democrats and the White House in an already contentious year of divided government.
This time, it wasn’t a partial government shutdown or even an unprecedented Treasury default that was at stake, but the prospect that payroll taxes would rise and long-term unemployment benefits end for millions of jobless victims of the worst recession since the 1930s.
Yet another deadline has been entangled in the dispute, this one affecting seniors, but the administration announced it had finessed a way around it. Officials said paperwork for doctors who treat Medicare patients in the early days of the new year will not be processed until Jan. 18, giving lawmakers more time to avert a 27 percent cut in fees threatened for Jan. 1.
Whatever the stakes, there was little indication that Republicans would get their wish for negotiations with the Senate any time soon. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued a statement saying he would be happy to resume talks on a yearlong measure — “but not before” the House ratifies the two-month bill and sends it to Obama for his signature.
Given Obama’s remarks and Reid’s refusal to negotiate, it was unclear what leverage Republicans had in the year-end standoff. It appeared likely the partisan disagreement could easily persist past Christmas and into the last week of the year.
The standoff was sowing confusion in business, running out of days to adapt to any new payroll tax regimen. Even the Senate’s proposed two-month extension was creating headaches because it contained a two-tiered system geared to ensuring that higher-income earners paid a higher rate on some of their wages, according to a trade group.
Democrats pounced on Republicans for rejecting the Senate bill, emboldened by polls finding Obama’s approval rising and that of the congressional Republicans fading. They noted that several lawmakers whom Boehner appointed to negotiate a compromise had recently criticized an extension of payroll tax cuts.