Payroll Tax Drama Exposes Rift Between House And Senate GOP

The House and Senate have cut a deal to extend the payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits, and Medicare physician reimbursement rates. But it almost didn’t happen. And the near miss is exposing a rift between House GOP leaders and their Senate counterparts.

Late on Wednesday evening, Senate negotiators — four Democrats, three Republicans — had a vote count problem. To move the payroll tax cut forward, four of them needed to sign on to the broad agreement. House Dem and GOP negotiators were all lined up. But none of the Senate Republican conferees would put pen to paper. When Democrat Ben Cardin (D-MD) wouldn’t sign on either, based on his objection to cuts to federal worker pensions, the Senate found itself one vote shy.Dems charged that Senate GOP leaders were holding their negotiators back because of their fealty to certain health care providers slated to take a fee cut under the agreement. Senate GOP leaders fiercly denied this, and charged that their reluctance stemmed from the fact that they’d been frozen out of negotiations all along.

They’re backed up on that claim by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) who told reporters Tuesday that Senate Republicans weren’t really a party to the negotiations. But this is key: Senate Republicans were complaining they’d been out of the loop the whole time, while House Republicans cut a deal with Democrats. That’s they balked.

It means their beef isn’t with Democrats as much as it is with House Republicans. At his weekly press conference on Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner undercut his Senate counterparts.

“[From] everything that I’ve seen, they’ve been as involved in the process as anybody else,” Boehner told reporters. “There was an awful lot of conversation. As a matter of fact, if I recall correctly, there were two or three public meetings where they were all present. So for someone to say they weren’t involved really would surprise me.”

A similar rift divided the two leadership teams in December, when House Republicans claimed they’d been left out of the loop when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrats struck a deal to expand the payroll tax cut for two months. Now they’re stepping on each others’ messages again, in reverse.

Democrats aren’t completely blameless for the last-minute drama. Early on Wednesday, top Dem aides predicted confidently that their negotiators were pleased with the agreement and ready to move on — clearly they had a whip count issue.

But the lasting issue is that House and Senate GOP leaders are no longer reading from the same script. If political tides keep moving in the Democrats’ direction, and Democrats can leverage growing support to push for more popular legislation to boost the economy, the schism will spell trouble for the Congressional GOP ahead of the election.