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News Wrap: After Standoff, Congress OKs Payroll Tax Cut Extension

February 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT

HARI SREENIVASAN: A months-long standoff on Capitol Hill came to an end today when Congress voted to extend the payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans.

MAN: The conference report is adopted.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The measure cleared the House by a vote of 293-132. And in short order, the Senate vote followed, with 60 voting in favor and 36 against.

The $143 billion package extends three main programs through the end of 2012: the 2 percent, $100 billion reduction in the Social Security payroll tax; federal unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed; and the so-called Medicare doc fix, preventing a 27 percent cut in reimbursements for doctors treating Medicare patients.

Even though the bill passed both chambers comfortably, a number of lawmakers from both parties found problems with it.

Republican Sen. Dan Coats.

SEN. DAN COATS, R-Ind.: So, let’s be honest with the American people. We’re just simply taking money away from the trust fund from retiree benefits, making Social Security come closer and closer and closer to bankruptcy and insolvency, at the same time not telling the American people that this so-called tax cut is robbing that fund.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer criticized it for cutting retirement benefits of new government hires.

REP. STENY HOYER, D-Md.: Nobody is targeted in this bill other than federal employees. You can tell I’m angry about that, because that’s not fair. And that’s not how you ought to treat our employees, America’s employees.

HARI SREENIVASAN: President Obama thanked Congress for their efforts during a visit to a Boeing factory in Everett, Wash.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, we actually took an important short-term step to strengthen our economy. Just before we got here, Congress did the right thing and voted to make sure that taxes would not go up on middle-class families at the end of this month.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The president is expected to sign the bill right after returning from his West Coast trip.

A 29-year-old Moroccan man was arrested today after planning to detonate a suicide vest near the U.S. Capitol Building. A counterterrorism official said Amine El Khalifi was taken into custody with an inoperable gun and inert explosives given to him by undercover FBI agents. He is not believed to be associated with al-Qaida, but had been under surveillance for at least a year.

Economic help for Greece seemed to edge closer today as top European leaders expressed confidence that a second bailout deal can be worked out next week. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was optimistic a meeting on Monday of European finance ministers will clear the deal. Greece is in line for a $170 billion rescue package, but, first, the country must agree to a host of debt-cutting programs.

The uncertainty in the Greek situation kept markets in limbo and struggling for direction. On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average flirted with the 13000 mark before ending the day up 45 points to close just under 12,950. The Nasdaq fell eight points to close above 2951. For the week, the Dow gained more than 1 percent. The Nasdaq rose 1.7 percent.

In Olympia, Greece, thieves stole more than 60 priceless ancient artifacts from a museum dedicated to the Olympic Games. Police called the robbery a well-calculated hit by two men wearing ski masks. It is the second major art theft in Greece this year. Museum guards have been among those public sector jobs to face cutbacks in the face of the Greek debt crisis.

Italian and Swiss authorities worked to confiscate $6 trillion in counterfeit U.S. bonds today. The bonds carried a fake issue date of 1934, and were transferred to a Swiss trust in Zurich via Hong Kong. Italian police said they had arrested eight people who were trying to sell the fake bonds to a developing nation. The sale never went through.

Libyans marked the one-year anniversary of the revolution that toppled Moammar Gadhafi. The former leader was captured and died in the hands of rebel fighters last October. In Benghazi, people gathered in Liberty Square for Friday prayers, which later turned into celebrations. Waving the Libyan flag, many cheered for a revolution in Syria, where government forces continue to crack down on opposition protesters.

Harry McPherson, who served as counsel and special counsel to President Lyndon Johnson, has died. McPherson also served as President Johnson’s chief speechwriter from 1966 to ’69. In ’68, he worked on one of the major addresses of Johnson’s presidency, when he announced an end to the bombing of North Vietnam.

And, as the president discussed with McPherson, he had a late addition to the speech: the stunning announcement that he wouldn’t seek another term in office.

HARRY MCPHERSON, former special counsel to the president: I had been working on it for almost three months. I said, “I think it’s okay, Mr. President.”

He said, “I have an ending that I have added.” I said, “I have heard that.”He said, “Do you know what’s in it?”

I said, “I think so.”

“What do you think about that?”

I said, “I’m very sorry, Mr. President.”

He said: “Thank you, partner. I’ll see you.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: McPherson went on to spend the rest of his career as a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington. He was 82 years old.

Those are some of the day’s major stories.