Week In Politics: Tax Break Extension

Robert Siegel speaks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne, of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks, of the New York Times. They discuss the two-month extension for a tax break and unemployment benefits signed into law.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

On Capitol Hill today, the Republican-led House of Representatives went into rewind mode. It acted on yesterday's deal between the Democratic Senate majority leader and the Republican speaker of the House. Both chambers opened ever so briefly. And with just a couple of members on the floor, each House declared itself unanimously in favor of a stopgap two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits.

With astonishing speed, a thicket of potential parliamentary obstacles was cleared and the Republican House approved precisely what it had blocked just four days earlier. On Monday, Speaker John Boehner rejected the compromise that 89 senators had approved.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: We oppose the Senate bill because doing the two-month extension instead of a full year extension causes uncertainty for job creators.

SIEGEL: As he spoke then, he was surrounded by members of the House GOP leadership, gathered shoulder to shoulder, a picture of collective resolve.

BOEHNER: It's time for Congress to do its work and no more kicking the can down the road.

SIEGEL: By Thursday, after being pilloried by John McCain, the Wall Street Journal, and Karl Rove, among others, after being implored by Republican Senators Scott Brown and Richard Lugar, Speaker Boehner faced the press all alone this time and announced that he had reached the agreement with Senator Reid.

BOEHNER: You know, sometimes it's hard to do the right thing. And sometimes it's politically difficult to do the right thing

SIEGEL: We're going to do our political thing now. Joining me are columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: This year began with John Boehner and the victorious Republicans taking command of the House, and it's ending with a pretty obvious defeat for them. David Brooks, what happened this week?

BROOKS: Welcome to reality of the way politics really is. Sort of on the merits, I have some sympathy with it. I'm always dubious of election year bribes or ratings, Social Security trust fund, give people a bribe in the election year. I'm especially dubious about doing it on a two-month extension. You might as well do it for a year.

But government is not about picking the best policies. Government is usually about picking the least bad policies, given what's on offer. And Republicans in the House, once the Senate Republicans signed on to the tax extension, Republicans in the House were totally locked in. And they should have the sense to understand that, hey, in government you often have to do these terrible deals. But they came in with the fervor of the Tea Party and said we won't do those terrible deals. Well, guess what, they have to do terrible deals.

SIEGEL: They lasted four days, E.J.

E.J.DIONNE: I mean, it was the dawn of the time of cross-ideological agreement. I agree with Karl Rove and the Wall Street Journal editorial page on the fact that the Republicans were really incoherent and incompetent in the House. Because the reason there was a two-month deal is because the Democrats and the Republicans couldn't agree on larger deal. And the only way to keep the payroll tax from going up was to do it on a short-term basis.

It was a week of miracles. I mean, the Republicans are in disarray and mired and agonized with incriminations. Democrats were disciplined and tough and never showed any inclination to cave in. And the president and congressional Democrats were on the same page. I think it's going to be very difficult for anyone to negotiate with Speaker Boehner anymore because he has to clear everything with this rather undisciplined and ideological caucus of his.

SIEGEL: Which raises the question, David, is Speaker Boehner in trouble?

BROOKS: A bit actually. First, I'm not sure we should be incredibly proud of ourselves for stealing money from our grandchildren to pay ourselves money on the short term. So, I'm not sure it's a great policy victory. But it is nonetheless true that Speaker Boehner is - you begin to hear talk around Washington, will he be the speaker next time. And that's - and I give all credit...

SIEGEL: Next time, you mean in January or you mean in 2013?

BROOKS: In 2013. And you begin to hear that talk. I happen to think he's going to last this out. He's a pro. He's respectable. But I'm more establishmentarian than most House Republicans. And I think he's a very good dealmaker, he just happens to be leading a caucus that doesn't like the kind of deals that often get done in Washington.

E.J.DIONNE: Right. And the problem is, he is a rather good dealmaker with a caucus that doesn't want him to make deals. And the opposition - the emphasis has been on the freshmen, but there are a lot of longer serving people on the right end of that of that caucus who may be causing him even more trouble than the freshmen. Some of the freshmen were very realistic and said please get us out of this. We don't want to be responsible for a tax increase.

SIEGEL: We're still looking ahead to the Iowa caucuses for the Republican presidential nomination. Has it begun to look a little bit like a two-way race between Romney and Gingrich? Or, David, is it wide open again?

BROOKS: I think it's looking much less like that. Over the past week, a bunch of super PACs run - not really run but associated loosely with Mitt Romney and Ron Paul have been leveling charge after charge about Gingrich. He really doesn't have the money or the infrastructure to rebut it. So, you're beginning to see Gingrich really fall and Ron Paul really rise. And so, if it's two-man race, it looks like Romney and Paul right now.

SIEGEL: And when he was - when Gingrich was surging, there was no surge of contributions that came with it?

BROOKS: There was to some of the super PACs. But the Ron Paul super PACs and the Mitt Romney super PACs, and again these are legally different organization without any moral distinction probably. They're well-funded, they're well-prepared. Having an infrastructure really matters.

SIEGEL: E.J., you wrote at least of the possibility of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum emerging from Iowa stronger than he went in.

E.J.DIONNE: He's currently stronger than he was. And I warrant in part to comment on how fluid this race is and how bunched up all these candidates are. Santorum got a bit of a boost this week by winning support from two rather important evangelical conservative leaders. But what you're seeing in Iowa is no coming together at all. I think Mitt Romney could conceivably win because the right wing vote is so fragmented or he could come in as low as fourth in that race, because there is, A, a lot of shifting around; and, B, fragmentation. Rick Perry is coming up some because he's spending a ton of money on advertising. It is less certain today than it was a week ago.

BROOKS: You know, I actually think it's more certain that Mitt Romney is going to get the nomination. If it was Romney versus Gingrich, you can imagine it stretching out month after month. I really do not see Ron Paul and Mitt Romney stretching out month after month or even Rick Santorum. The odd thing for me that's happened this week is that Ron Paul is rising despite of Romney's.

SIEGEL: He's very isolationist and anti-interventionist. That would be the way to put it. David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, have a great weekend. And, E.J., merry Christmas.

E.J.DIONNE: Thank you.

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