TOPICS > Politics

In Washington, a Familiar Showdown, but ‘People Are Dug in Much Deeper’

December 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner dug in their heels Tuesday and refused to break a stalemate over extending a payroll tax cut after the House balked at approving a two-month extension. Jeffrey Brown discusses the latest back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans with Todd Zwillich of WYNC's "The Takeaway."

GWEN IFILL: The House of Representatives refused today to approve a short-term extension of the payroll tax cut. That touched off a new war of words between the president and the speaker of the House, with each side demanding the other give ground.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The challenges flew back and forth between the White House and the Capitol.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m calling on the speaker and the House Republican leadership to bring up the Senate bill for a vote.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, speaker of the House: I need the president to help out, alright?



JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner spoke separately minutes after House Republicans rejected a bipartisan Senate bill that extended the payroll tax cut by two months.

MAN: The motion is adopted.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: It’s all yours, sir.

BARACK OBAMA: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president pressed the House to reconsider during a surprise appearance in the White House Briefing Room this afternoon.

BARACK OBAMA: Now, let’s be clear. Right now, the bipartisan compromise that was reached on Saturday is the only viable way to prevent a tax hike on Jan. 1. It’s the only one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaker Boehner, appearing right after the president, sounded equally firm at his own briefing.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I think President Obama needs to call on Senate Democrats to go back into session, move to go to conference, and to sit down and resolve this bill as quickly as possible. I sent a letter to the president today asking him to do just this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier, during the House debate, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor insisted that Republicans in his chamber wouldn’t go along with any short-term bill. He said only a full-year extension would do.

REP. ERIC CANTOR, R-Va., House majority leader: Families, employers and workers can’t live their lives month to month. Washington needs to stop adding confusion and more uncertainty to people’s lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: In all, some 160 million people are affected. They pay an average of $1,000 a year more in taxes if Congress does not pass an extension before year’s end.

House Republicans called for an immediate negotiation with Senate leaders. House Democrats, like Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, rejected that route as risky and unnecessary.

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE, D-Texas: Let me tell you what we’re doing today. The Washington Republicans are taking a high-risk gamble. This is gambling. This is throwing the dice.

MAN: The Senate stands adjourned.

JEFFREY BROWN: For its part, the Senate has already left Washington for a month-long holiday recess.

And a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “We are not coming back. We are not appointing negotiators until they pass the Senate compromise.”

Adding to the stakes is the pressure to extend long-term unemployment benefits past year’s end and to waive huge cuts in Medicare payments to doctors before they take effect Jan. 18. Both were in the Senate bill that the House rejected today.

Covering the back-and-forth on Capitol Hill is Todd Zwillich of “The Takeaway” from Public Radio International and WNYC. And he joins us now.

So, Todd, what’s your reporting telling you about what led to today’s rejection of the extension by House Republicans? Where is the pressure coming from?

TODD ZWILLICH, Public Radio International: Well, the pressure really appears to be on Speaker John Boehner.

And, Jeff, it’s pressure frankly that we have seen before. A lot of us on Capitol Hill and a lot of viewers have seen different versions of this movie before. Think back to the debt limit. Think to the threat of a government shutdown in March, when John Boehner, the speaker, was either close to a deal with Democrats or appeared to have one, and then only had extreme difficulty selling to restive conservatives, in some cases Tea Party members, but not in all cases, in his own conference.

And that is largely what’s gone on here, except this time the volume is higher, the anger is higher and people are dug in much deeper. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, cut a deal with Harry Reid last week. And it was on that two-month extension that you described. And they got an overwhelming bipartisan vote, 89 votes.

And it wasn’t just Sen. McConnell who voted for it. Tea Party senators like Marco Rubio from Florida voted for it as well. It was when John Boehner, the speaker, took it back to House Republicans to present them with the deal, according to some reporting, to say, this is the best deal we’re going to get, take it for now, we will fight again in February, that they roundly and loudly rejected it.


TODD ZWILLICH: And now he’s having trouble in his own conference.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and then speaking of digging in, the House acts today, and then over at the White House, the president appears and he says, we are not giving an inch.

So they made a decision over there. Is he under similar kinds of pressure from Democrats on the Hill?

TODD ZWILLICH: There were a lot of nervous Democrats, Jeff, when the president took the podium today. They didn’t know what he was going to say. And often a president in an election year or any other time who wants to appear presidential plays the big boy in the room. He says, I call on the parties to get together, settle this, let’s move forward.

The president didn’t do that. The president took the full-throated political position and challenged John Boehner directly, by name, pass the compromise bill that passed the Senate. Let’s put politics aside just for two months. We’ll fight later.

And Democrats on the Hill were thrilled with that. They felt like it completely solidified their position. It’s a political position. Let’s please not forget that this is an election year, you know, two weeks from now officially an election year after Jan. 1. And that’s where we’re at. The president took a full-throated political position. And that is the other half of the dig in here.

JEFFREY BROWN: So now you have got — we have got a situation where everyone says, they say at least, that they want this payroll tax extension.

Now, do you see that anybody has a plan B, a kind of backup plan for what happens next?

TODD ZWILLICH: I’m sorry to tell you that, right now, there doesn’t appear to be a tangible plan B.

There are whispers around the Capitol by different people who would like to see a compromise how the two sides might both save face and move forward, pass something now, guarantee to negotiate later. They’re just whispers. Right now, when you ask people straight up, what is the way to shake this loose, they are dug in.

The one good thing about this, it’s really not — even though it seems like it, it’s really not the 12th hour. There are two weeks to go before this tax cut expires on New Year’s Eve. Yes, it’s a drastic inconvenience for members to be here and working between Christmas and New Year’s or right up until Christmas, but they can do it.

And if they find a way to do it and nobody really wants this tax cut to expire, then they will find a way. There are rumblings of how to fix this retroactively. It’s difficult to do, once withholding from your paycheck goes back up, how to return the money, very difficult to do. Nobody wants to go there. But that’s already starting to bubble up on Capitol Hill as well, which would mean no solution before New Year’s.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you brought up the politics. And of course it’s inescapable.

What do people — what do members tell you? It looks like each side somehow thinks that the potential voter backlash will fall on the other.

TODD ZWILLICH: And that’s why some experienced operatives on Capitol Hill are saying, let’s see what happens when some of these members go home and meet with their constituents.

That could be the deciding factor here about what they’re hearing. Are they hearing, yay, Republicans, you took it to the president, stick with it, don’t give in? Are Republicans hearing, well, we don’t like this standoff? Are Democrats hearing, hey, we want a year extension, you guys only have a two-month extension?

You saw some shake — some things shake loose from some senators, frankly, all Republican senators who are up for reelection, like Scott Brown of Massachusetts, like Dick Lugar of Indiana, saying the House should just take the Senate bill. These were all senators who are up for reelection, who have direct political concerns. House members always have direct political concerns. They’re up every two years.

So, once they’re home a few days, maybe we’ll see if some people on either side of the aisle start to change their tunes.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Todd Zwillich, thanks so much.

TODD ZWILLICH: My pleasure.