NPR logo Payroll-Tax Pact Implosion: Another Deal That Really Wasn't One

Payroll-Tax Pact Implosion: Another Deal That Really Wasn't One

House Speaker John Boehner on NBC's "Meet the Press," Dec. 18, 2011. William B. Plowman/AP hide caption

toggle caption
William B. Plowman/AP

House Speaker John Boehner on NBC's "Meet the Press," Dec. 18, 2011.

William B. Plowman/AP

It's by now a familiar pattern. Speaker John Boehner gives other leaders in Washington the impression that a deal has been reached on some fiscal matter of great importance.

Or, similarly, he indicates that fiscal legislation he's behind can get through the House only to have everything fall apart once his fellow House Republicans, especially the Tea Party wing, weigh in.

It happened with the deal to avoid a government shutdown last March and legislation to raise the debt ceiling in August. Now it's happened again with the widely reported "deal" to extend for two months the payroll tax holiday.

The Senate passed the agreement with 89 votes, a super dooper bipartisan majority rare for the modern Senate. It was clear afterwards from their statements that most of the major players assumed Boehner and House Republicans were on board.

On Saturday after the Senate vote President Obama said:

"We've got a lot more work to do for the people who sent us here. But today, I'm glad that both parties in Congress came together, and I want to thank them for ensuring that as we head into the holidays, folks at home don't have to worry about their taxes going up."

Except the GOP-led House once more has reminded everyone that it's never over until all the votes are counted.

Asked Monday at a short news conference if he ever told Obama Administration officials that he supported the Senate plan, Boehner said "no." When a reporter said to him "You initially supported moving forward with the two-month plan, what changed in your mind?" Boehner rejected that description:

"No, That's not true. What I initially outlined was the fact that having the Keystone pipeline in here was a success. But I raised questions about the two-month process from the moment that I heard about it."

Boehner said he wants a one-year extension which would have the virtue of moving the payroll tax fight beyond the November election. But Boehner suggested it was the American people he had in mind, not political necessity:

"You know, Americans are tired of Washington's short-term fixes and gimmicks, which are creating uncertainty for job creators at a time when millions of Americans are out of work."

In his response, the speaker was referring to the inclusion of the language in the Senate bill that would require the Obama Administration to decide on the Keystone gas pipeline project within 60 days.

The Canada to Gulf Coast pipeline is controversial with environmentalists and even some Republicans because its initial route would take it through some sensitive areas of Nebraska.

So when the administration announced recently that it was putting a decision on hold to consider alternate routes, a process likely to take it past November, some smelled election-year politics in that too. The House GOP bill had included language similar to the Senate's, requiring an earlier decision.

News reports indicate the supposed payroll tax agreement ran into the same conservative buzzsaw within the House Republican conference that hit efforts to raise the federal debt-ceiling in the summer and fund the government last spring.

House conservatives, including the Tea Party wing, don't like the idea of a two-month extension because it would leave them facing Democratic Party attacks as soon as February that they're neglecting the interests of the middle class for the sake of the superwealthy. That not a good place to be during an election year.

Republicans have insisted that the payroll tax extension be paid for through spending cuts while Democrats argued for increased taxes on the superwealthy. Unable to bridge that divide, the sides agreed to a two-month extension was seen as providing more time for negotiations. At least they thought they had agreed.

As Roll Call reported:

"The 48-hour tectonic shift is indicative of either a miscommunication between Congress' two top Republicans or a miscalculation on Boehner's part that he would be able to rally enough votes. Boehner had told McConnell and Reid to come up with a solution."

Republicans do have a political problem because of the delay. Democrats will pound them ceaselessly for being willing to let taxes rise on middle-class Americans while fighting to prevent any tax increases on the superwealthy.

NBC/MSNBC's First Read put it this way:

"Remember, they have been getting hammered on this back home, and look at the most recent NBC/WSJ poll about which party does a better job at protecting the middle class. Politically, for as much heat as the House GOP is taking on this walk away, perhaps they are right: They can't afford, politically, to have this issue hanging over their head on Groundhog Day."

Boehner also obviously has a serious problem. The notion that the House GOP is a case of the tail wagging the dog is only reinforced when the speaker appears to have reached with White House and Senate negotiators only to return after having talked with members of his conference to say there was agreement or not one the House will pass.

Boehner could become the personification of Washington dysfunction the same way Rep. Nancy Pelosi became for many the symbol of government overreach. That could lead voters to take out their frustrations on Congress in a way that could prove harmful to Boehner keeping his speakership.