Hill Standoff Over Payroll Tax Cut Continues

With the House rejecting the Senate's extension of the payroll tax cut Tuesday, it is unclear if anything will be resolved between the two houses before the new year. Robert Siegel gets the view of the standoff from Capitol Hill from NPR's Tamara Keith.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For more on the standoff, we're joined now by NPR congressional reporter Tamara Keith. Hi.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

SIEGEL: And what's happening at the Capitol today?

KEITH: It's mostly a ghost town over there. The Senate went home on Saturday, and most House members are gone now too. There aren't any votes scheduled this week so far, and House members were told would get 24-hour notice if they needed to return. This morning, there was a meeting of the House GOP leadership and the eight Republicans who would be on the conference committee if the Senate would agree to a conference committee, which they haven't. But basically that was a photo op, and here's what Speaker John Boehner said.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: We're here. We're ready to go to work. And we're hoping that the Senate Democrats will appoint negotiators, come to the table and resolve these differences.

KEITH: The House also gaveled into session today for a grand total of two minutes and 30 seconds. That was mostly the opening prayer and the pledge of allegiance. And then Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip, tried to get a vote on the Senate payroll tax bill, and he couldn't even get the speaker pro tempore to acknowledge him.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHAEL FITZPATRICK: The House stands adjourned until 10 a.m. on Friday, December 23, 2011.

REPRESENTATIVE STENY HOYER: Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker.

KEITH: As Congressman Hoyer tried to talk, tried to bring it up, the Pennsylvania Republican who was presiding over the session just set down the gavel and walked out of the room.

SIEGEL: So the opposite of progress today on the Hill is what you're saying, just more digging in.

KEITH: More digging in indeed. Oh, but there was also a flurry of letter writing and cable news appearances. Democrats in the House and the Senate, they're still saying that they'd be happy to negotiate a yearlong deal, which is what the House Republicans also want. But they say they won't do that until the House signs off on this two-month interim extension. The House Republicans are still insisting that the best way to resolve it is through this conference committee thing.

SIEGEL: Now, the bill that the House has rejected passed the Senate with resounding support from Senate Republicans. It was truly a bipartisan majority. Are any of those Senate Republicans speaking out?

KEITH: Most Senate Republicans have remained silent, but there are a few who are talking, and those who are talking are speaking out against the current posture of the House Republicans. Before the vote yesterday, several called on the House to approve the bipartisan Senate measure. And today, Senator John McCain tweeted out a link to this morning's Wall Street Journal editorial, the one that Scott mentioned, saying, the Journal is, quote, "right on the mark." And reminder, the headline for that editorial: The GOP's Payroll Fiasco. So the reviews are in, and they're overwhelmingly bad.

SIEGEL: So how might this all end?

KEITH: It's not clear at this point that House Republicans want a way out of this. They, at this moment, are not looking for a compromise really, except through this negotiation that they're asking for. Democrats aren't eager to give them a way out. They don't want to reopen negotiations. So there's a an option that the House could just come back and approve the Senate version, but of course, that would require the House Republicans to admit that - it would be a total reversal. And so that seems somewhat unlikely.

Or there could be some sort of strongly worded letter or side agreement where the leaders would agree to work out a yearlong deal before a certain date, something like that, in exchange for the House approving the two-month Senate version. But really, someone has to blink.

SIEGEL: And what if no one blinks?

KEITH: Well, come the new year, 160 million Americans would see a little bit less money in every paycheck because the payroll tax holiday would end. Doctors would see Medicare reimbursements plummet. And in January alone, 1.8 million people would have their unemployment benefits cut off. The optics would be awful.

SIEGEL: That's NPR congressional reporter Tamara Keith.

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