Senate OKs Two More Months For Payroll Tax Cut

Each year, as Congress works to wrap up budget and tax bills and other "must-pass" legislation, inevitably not so must-pass items creep into the mix — inserted either to smooth passage for the more important things, or in the hopes that no one will notice. This year marks the first time that leadership has been unable to use earmarks to buy off reluctant votes, and has turned to other forms of grease instead. NPR's David Welna reports.

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We go now from how to withdraw from a country to how to cram big pieces of legislation through Congress at the end of the year. That's just what the Senate did today in a rare Saturday session.

It passed a huge spending bill barely in time to prevent a government shutdown. It also approved a big compromise extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits for another two months. And each bill in its own way is a kind of legislative Christmas tree with ornaments added and a few taken down. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Congressional Democrats and President Obama were determined to get the payroll tax cut and benefits for the long-term unemployed extended before leaving town for the holidays. So what did Republican lawmakers do? Fine, they said. We'll make those extensions, but only if the bill makes the president speed up the permitting process for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. That's the controversial project that Mr. Obama had essentially put on hold until after next year's election. New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer cried foul.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: It's the holiday season and they've made it - made this very serious proposal to help the middle class into a Christmas tree, and a Christmas tree with special goodies for certain special interests.

WELNA: And President Obama earlier this month laid down what seemed to be a clear marker.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Any effort to try to tie Keystone to the payroll tax cut, I will reject. So everybody should be on notice.

WELNA: But the pipeline was one ornament Republicans were not about to take down. Here's Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor yesterday.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: The House of Representatives has been quite clear that they're not going to support a package that does not include the pipeline. Frankly, I will not be able to support a package that doesn't include the pipeline.

WELNA: For Republican leaders, defying the president by putting the Keystone pipeline provision on the bill was a sure way to lure GOP votes for extending a tax cut they did not much like but felt they could hardly oppose. And so last night, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cut a deal with McConnell. The tax cuts would be extended two months and the president would have two months to approve building the Keystone pipeline. Here's Reid earlier today.

SENATOR HARRY REID: I was the first elected official to write a letter opposing that. I don't know how I feel about this. I know how my friend, the Republican leader, feels about it. I was responsible putting it in this bill. That's how legislation works.

WELNA: Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill is one of the 89 senators who voted for the compromise.

This is not the first time that there's been a messy, sloppy divided government that has, you know - I mean, there's a reason they call a legislative body sausage factories. You know, it may taste good at the end, but you don't want to see it being made.

The final omnibus bill that won passage today runs 1,200 pages and spends $915 billion. It, too, became a legislative Christmas tree, despite the assurances of House GOP Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers.

REPRESENTATIVE HAL ROGERS: There are no earmarks here. There are no air-dropped provisions in this bill. It is a good bill.

WELNA: Many House Democrats disagreed.

REPRESENTATIVE ED MARKEY: This is the end of the year, and so the Republicans need a few presents.

WELNA: That's Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey. He accused Republicans of putting gifts under the omnibus tree for the oil and coal industries.

MARKEY: What they have said is, just give us one thing. Give us one trinket, perhaps, a symbol of our success in rolling back the laws of energy efficiency in our country. And so within this bill, the Republicans have now successfully inserted a provision which rolls back the light bulb efficiency law.

WELNA: Republicans were also outraged by some of the things they found buried in the spending bill the Senate passed today. Arizona's John McCain is the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, which authorizes all defense spending. This morning on the Senate floor, McCain listed example after example of $3.5 billion worth of projects that had never been authorized and that the Pentagon had never requested.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: It's outrageous. I have amendments to save the taxpayers billions of dollars that's associated with this bill, but never mind because we're going to go home for Christmas.

WELNA: McCain and 31 other senators voted against the omnibus; 67 of their colleagues voted for it. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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