TOPICS > Politics

House GOP Agrees to Tax Cut Deal, but Is Another Showdown Just 2 Months Away?

December 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Breaking an impasse Thursday afternoon, House GOP leaders set a vote on a stopgap Senate bill that extends the payroll tax cut and long-term unemployment benefits for another two months. Judy Woodruff discusses the latest developments in Washington with Todd Zwillich of WNYC's "The Takeaway."

JUDY WOODRUFF: There was a break late today in the stalemate over extending the payroll tax cut. House Republican leaders agreed to call a new vote on a stopgap two-month extension that had already passed the Senate. Until now, the House had been insisting on a full one-year bill. But they reversed course after a public statement by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

In it, he said, “The House should pass an extension that prevents any disruption in the payroll tax holiday or other expiring provisions, and allows Congress to work on a solution for the longer extensions.”

Six hours later, House Speaker John Boehner announced plans to approve the Senate bill and then begin negotiations on a longer-term extension. He said House Republicans had fought the good fight.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, speaker of the House: When everybody called for a one-year extension of the payroll tax deduction, when everybody wanted a full year of extended unemployment benefits, we were here fighting for the right things.

It may not have been, politically, the smartest thing in the world, but let me tell you what. I think our members waged a good fight. We were able to come to an agreement. We were able to fix what came out of the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Moments later, President Obama issued his own statement welcoming the end of what he called the partisan stalemate.

Covering today’s late-breaking developments on Capitol Hill is Todd Zwillich of “The Takeaway” from Public Radio International and WNYC. And he joins us now.

So, Todd, what happened? What changed the speaker’s mind and the mind of the Republicans around him?

TODD ZWILLICH, “The Takeaway,” Public Radio International: Judy, there’s been a study drumbeat for the last few days coming, of course, from Democrat — that’s predictable — but also from Republicans leaning on House Republicans to relent here and go with the two-month extension.

It started, really, with the Senate vote. Let’s go back a few days. Remember, 89-10, huge bipartisan vote on a two-month extension, a deal cut by Mitch McConnell. House Republicans didn’t want to go for it. After that, several individual Republican senators saying, hey, House, take it. After that, the Wall Street Journal editorial board in an editorial yesterday, a friend to Republicans, frankly, The Wall Street Journal saying this is turning — this is turning into an embarrassing political situation for Republicans — hey, House Republicans, take the deal.

They still didn’t. And then, finally, today, as you said, Judy, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who had already sent a very strong message with that 89-10 vote, said it in words, said it explicitly: Take the deal.

After that, it was a little bit difficult — in fact, probably impossible — for the speaker to maintain this posture that they were going to keep blocking the two-month extension and fight on.

But I do want to say something that’s important. The speaker has agreed to move the two-month extension. We don’t want to say yet that all Republicans have. The speaker is going to try to use a procedure called unanimous consent. Unanimous is the key word. Some Republicans in his ranks are angry about it. They don’t like this deal. They’re upset with him.

One of them or more can object to this. And if they do, the speaker says the House comes back next week to actually vote on it. So not everybody’s agreed to this yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how — why did the speaker then, himself, go along, if he’s not sure that he’s got the rest of his members behind him?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, he’s sure that he will be able to pass this with a lot of Democrats and a handful of Republicans if he needs to. There’s really not much danger of this not passing.

The question is, does he get it through in a way that keeps him politically viable? That’s really, that’s really the concern. The speaker is in charge. He’s the speaker of the House and he’s the leader of his conference, of the Republicans. He’s in charge of cutting deals with the opposition. He’s in charge of cutting deals with the president and with Harry Reid.

That’s what he has done here. It’s up to the speaker to determine when the political moment is right to take a deal that’s difficult, that he may not like, or to fight. All the reporting from after that 89-10 Senate vote was that John Boehner actually thought it was the best deal they were going to get, and he faced a revolt among conservative, some Tea Party member, conservative members in his own conference, and had to fight on. That fight is now over.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Todd, it is so unusual to see this kind of an open split among Republicans, to have the top Republican in the Senate going in one direction, the House speaker going in another direction.

How do you account for this? How did this happen?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, I think what you are seeing is a reprise of some of the same dynamics that we have seen during this, this 111th Congress Republican House leadership.

John Boehner is an institutionalist. He’s been in the body a long time. He’s an establishment Republican. He was swept into power with the help of — with Tea Party members and other freshman conservatives who have a — who are reform-minded, to put it in the mildest way possible.

Some of them, you say behind the scenes, want to tear the house down. They don’t care about the way things are done normally. If they don’t like a deal, if they don’t like the speaker at the table with Joe Biden or Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama, all of their political enemies, they say so.

And you have seen this dynamic during the debt limit fight, during spending negotiations, during the threat of a government shutdown back in March, a very similar dynamic. This one went right up to Christmas, and people are much more vocal now. If you talk to those conservative Republicans, many of them are extremely fed up.

And this, of course, spells trouble for Speaker Boehner and his control over his conference. You don’t know what kind of trouble or how big. It needs it to play out, but it’s trouble.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, if he had to change course, change his mind, what give was there on the Democrats’ side, on the side of the White House? Any?

TODD ZWILLICH: There was a little bit, very little real give. They agreed to change this two-month extension around in some technical ways that will make it easier for accountants and employers to do the withholding in a way that doesn’t mess up the way they calculate withholding.

Remember, on this two-month extension, they are forcing a decision on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline in 60 days. The president and the State Department had already put off that decision for environmental concerns, but also, let’s face it, a politically difficult decision for the White House to meet — environmentalists on his left saying we don’t want this thing and we won’t come out for you if you approve this, Mr. President.

What’s in this deal is that they now have to make a decision in the next 60 days. The Obama administration says, well, that decision will be the same regardless, but they have to get headlines over — they have to get headlines about it again. It will come back and Republicans will capitalize on it.

The Democrats got something important here with this two-month extension, Judy. The State of the Union address is on Jan. 24, on Tuesday. And Republicans are afraid — and rightfully so — that the president will be out in front of the country, out in front of the House joint session during prime time wagging his finger at Republican members for being obstructionists and further isolating the American middle-of-the-ground voter from Tea Party conservative movements.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just in a couple of words, Todd Zwillich, what are the prospects for this one-year extension that they are going to take up again in the new year?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, everybody wants it. Everybody says they want it. Everybody has agreed to appoint a conference committee to negotiate it. I would not have very high hopes for that conference committee producing a result.

The sides are far apart. This will probably be worked out again between leaders. We might be back here having a similar conversation in two months, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That would be shocking.

Todd Zwillich…

TODD ZWILLICH: It would, wouldn’t it?


JUDY WOODRUFF: Todd Zwillich of “The Takeaway,” thanks very much.

TODD ZWILLICH: My pleasure.