Standoff: A Guide To The Ongoing Fight Over The Payroll Tax Cut

At a Capitol press conference Monday morning, House Speaker John Boehner told reporters he expects his members will kill the bipartisan, Senate-passed, two-month payroll tax cut bill. Instead he said Republicans will insist that Senate Democrats return to Washington and hash out the differences between that package, and the partisan one-year bill the House GOP passed a week ago.

That’s setting up a new round in the ongoing fight over how to prevent that tax cut — and other expiring policies like emergency unemployment benefits, and reimbursement rates for Medicare physicians — from expiring.

Where we go from here depends on Boehner making good on his threat. To that end House and Senate Democrats, along with key Senate Republicans — who voted for the compromise measure, and whom Boehner is hanging out to dry — are pressing the House GOP to follow through on the deal.“The House Republicans’ plan to scuttle the deal to help middle-class families is irresponsible and wrong,” reads a statement from Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA). “I appreciate their effort to extend these measures for a full year, but a two-month extension is a good deal when it means we avoid jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions of American families.”

DCCC chairman Steve Israel is pressing dozens of individual House Republicans in key districts — and he has a good argument: Why should a Rep. Allen West (R-FL) reject a compromise that was good enough for his fellow delegate, conservative Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

But after a stunning rebellion by House Republicans, Boehner has publicly committed to killing the compromise. Assuming he follows through, that’ll reset the debate to some extent. Senate Democrats have told Boehner they’re done for the year. Acting as Boehner’s proxy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell negotiated an agreement that was designed to pass the House, he gave Majority Leader Harry Reid the greenlight to adjourn until after the holidays, and then Boehner reneged — this is his problem.

But while that’s an argument almost everybody in Washington — or everyone who watched this weekend’s events unfold — agrees with, it won’t necessarily translate into voter pressure on House Republicans. If the Senate bill goes down in the House tonight, and the only people left in Washington are Boehner and his caucus demanding in the national media that Senate Dems return from vacation to resume negotiations, the politics will change. Reid’s threats could easily prove unsustainable, and he may be forced back to Capitol Hill to convene the Senate and appoint members to a conference committee.

That doesn’t mean Boehner’s off the hook, though. Reid worked to pass an extremely bipartisan bill — 89 votes, including an overwhelming majority of Republicans. All Boehner has to counter is his year-long bill, which passed the House on a highly partisan basis, and included financing provisions — like Medicare cuts — that Democrats by and large reject. That means if negotiations stall, the pressure will be on Boehner to push the Senate bill through over the objections of the majority of his caucus. In other words, even if Boehner can make Reid return to the Capitol, he can’t force him to deal as an equal — Reid will have a lot of leverage in those talks.

The X-factor here is the White House. What will they do if they sense that the payroll cut, and UI and the doc fix are all about to expire? In the last days of the debt limit fight, the Obama administration faced a similar dilemma. Reid had a plan in the Senate, Boehner had a plan in the House. But just as now, House Republicans rebelled, and left Boehner hanging — seemingly destroying his ability to negotiate. Suddenly Reid had the only viable legislation in the Congress and with the hours ticking down, it looked like Republicans would have to cave and pass it. That’s when the White House stepped in and cut a deal with Republicans, effectively bailing Boehner out. That’s the deal that ultimately passed. If the White House spooks out about the prospect of all these provisions lapsing, administration officials could step in once again.