House Leaders Do An About-Face On Tax Extension

Three days of intense pressure persuaded House GOP leaders to give in and go along with a short-term extension of the payroll tax cut and extend unemployment compensation benefits. Congress convenes on Friday in hopes of approving the stopgap measure.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

It appears as if the bitter fighting in Congress is about to come to an end just in time for Christmas. Today, the House and the Senate are expected to approve an extension of the payroll tax holiday and benefits for the long-term unemployed. This required a major reversal for House Republicans who, earlier this week, voted to reject a nearly identical compromise.

Joining us now to explain what changed is NPR congressional reporter Tamara Keith. Good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So all week, House Republicans have been saying a two month extension - 'cause that's all it is - was too short and, as they put it, just kicking the can down the road. So how did we get back to having a workable deal?

KEITH: Well, there are two answers here. There's the official answer. And there's the political answer. Officially, the bill that will come up today is different from the Senate bill. It removes a reporting requirement related to the payroll tax that was in the Senate version, and that could have been problematic for small businesses. And Senate majority leader has agreed to appoint members to a conference committee immediately to work out this year-long compromise, that everyone agrees is needed.

The measure also contains the Keystone Pipeline language, forcing the president to make a decision on the controversial crude oil pipeline within 60 says. But that was in the Senate bill already. So, if you step back, all the House GOP got out of this is a tiny change to the Senate bill and a massive black eye.

MONTAGNE: Yes, the black eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: That's the political answer I think you were just talking about. I mean the House Republicans were under pressure from their own - big time.

KEITH: Indeed...

MONTAGNE: I mean their own Republicans.

KEITH: Yes. Yes. Yes, including yesterday Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell - he'd been silent all week, and he came out yesterday and said the House should pass the short-term extension. And he was just the latest in this growing chorus of Republicans saying that the standoff in the House was hurting the party.

Yesterday, at a press conference, House speaker John Boehner admitted that the last few days didn't go so well.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: It may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world. But I'm going to tell you what. I think our members waged a good fight. We were able to come to an agreement. We were able to fix what came out of the Senate.

KEITH: And assuming that this passes today, through unanimous consent - meaning no member objects - then everyone can go home for Christmas who hasn't already. And they won't have to see headlines that say things like: House Republicans Leave Coal in the Stockings of the Middle-Class. Things they were going to face, no doubt.

MONTAGNE: And, Tamara, you know, what does this whole episode say about the way John Boehner operates as speaker of the House?

KEITH: Democrats would like say that John Boehner is a leader who often doesn't have control over his members, and it looks that way a lot of the times. Senate majority leader Harry Reid says that he had a deal a week ago, with the implicit approval of speaker Boehner. And then Boehner went to his membership and they who revolted. And Boehner now says there was never an agreement.

Whatever the case may be, it's clear that over the last week rank and file Republicans have made their opinions known and speaker Boehner has done what they wanted. And John Boehner likes to say that he lets the House work its will and sometimes that leads to embarrassing votes, where bills fail unexpectedly. Though it appears as though speaker Boehner is now going to enforce his will on the House today.

MONTAGNE: So, the conference committee will begin meeting soon to hammer out a year-long deal. And where will the conflict points be in that?

KEITH: Well, there are two major fissures that I can already see. The parties don't agree on how to pay for a year-long extension, that's been the problem for weeks now. And there's another major area of disagreement that's been lost in the larger political battle and that's unemployment. Republicans want to cut back unemployment benefits and also require things like drug test and forcing people to enroll in GED programs.

Democrats and advocates for the unemployed describe these reforms as burdensome and demeaning. This is going to...

MONTAGNE: Tamara.

KEITH: ...be a big fight.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR congressional reporter, Tamara Keith. Thanks.

KEITH: Thank you.

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