U.S. House Speaker John Boehner is finding himself in a familiar and awkward place: facing accusations that he can’t control his own troops.
The derailment in the House of a deal between Senate Democrats and Republicans to extend for two months a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits has sparked criticism of Boehner’s leadership and exposed rifts within Republican ranks as the party enters the 2012 election campaign.
“It is yet another slap in the face for John Boehner,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “He looks like he can’t deliver,” Baker said, recalling Boehner’s failed talks in July with President Barack Obama for a “grand bargain” to cut spending and extend the government’s borrowing authority.
During those talks with the president, Boehner, 62, suggested “very strongly that a deal was in the works, and then the caucus pulls the rug out from under him,” Baker said. In this latest fight, the speaker waited until a day after the Senate voted 89-10 for the tax-cut legislation -- with the support of 39 Republicans, including minority leader Mitch McConnell -- to announce his opposition, following complaints from House Republican lawmakers about the bill.
The House of Representatives today rejected the two-month extension, 229-193, with House leaders saying the stopgap measure wouldn’t provide enough certainty for companies. Boehner asked Obama in a letter to urge the Senate to negotiate toward a yearlong extension of the tax cut that’s set to expire Dec. 31.
The dispute comes a year after Republicans captured control of the House, fueled by support from anti-tax Tea Party groups. Confrontations with Democrats have escalated, and polls show growing public discontent over the gridlock in Congress that brought the government to the brink of a partial shutdown in April and default in August.
Four Republican senators -- Olympia Snowe of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Dean Heller of Nevada -- yesterday called on the House to pass the payroll tax-cut extension. All four face the voters next year.
“What is playing out in Washington, D.C., this week is about political leverage, not about what’s good for the American people,” Heller said in a statement. “There is no reason to hold up the short-term extension while a more comprehensive deal is being worked out,” he said.
‘Under Enormous Pressure’
“Speaker Boehner is under enormous pressure,” said Lugar, appearing on MSNBC yesterday. “He’s obviously gotten a lot of feedback from many Republicans who say we just simply don’t like” the payroll tax cut or the unemployment compensation.
Boehner rejected suggestions that his position was inconsistent, saying he never supported the short-term extension of the tax cut and instead favored a year-long continuation of the measure.
Asked by reporters why he didn’t “raise a red flag” with Senate Republicans before most of them voted for the short-term extension, he said, “I raised questions about the two-month process from the moment that I heard about it.”
He disputed a White House official’s assertion that the speaker’s assurances that the House would pass the measure were relayed to the administration after the Senate vote. “There was never a conversation with the White House,” Boehner said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration had assumed that House and Senate Republican leaders were in accord. “It was certainly our expectation, and we certainly had reason to believe, that there was support in the House” for the two-month extension, Carney told reporters yesterday.
The speaker acknowledged that he had told colleagues that a provision in the Senate bill requiring the Obama administration to decide in 60 days whether to agree to the building of an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas was “a success.”
And Boehner didn’t voice objections to the two-month extension at a Dec. 16 news conference, when he warned that if the Senate omitted the pipeline provision, “we will make changes” in the legislation.
Asked about his failure to mention his problem with the 60- day timetable for the tax cut, Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, said, “rather than negotiating in the press,” the speaker cited the pipeline provision “as an example of what we need” in the Senate measure.
“He was very open to our response” during a 90-minute conference call held Dec. 17 after the Senate passed the measure, she said. “The leadership just shared the same disappointment we felt.”
At the outset of that conference call, Boehner told Republican colleagues he was leaning toward accepting the two- month extension, instead of the one-year continuation of the payroll tax cut favored by the House, said a House Republican leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The speaker didn’t advocate for that option, the aide said.
House Republican leaders held the call to “get input from members,” Steel said. “The speaker described three possible options -- accept the Senate bill, go to conference, or amend the Senate bill and send it back. We have since decided to go to conference.”
House Republicans criticized the Senate vote, with Tom Reed of New York saying he was “very troubled about the actions” of his Republican colleagues. Representative Steve Womack of Arkansas sang “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in response to a question about why Senate Republicans agreed to the compromise.
Boehner is being responsive to Republican freshmen as they become increasingly frustrated by the short-term fixes that have become a legislative staple in a year dominated by political stalemates, said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the Republican-leaning Heritage Foundation.
“You have a thoroughly dysfunctional Congress that is gyrating from one crisis deadline to another,” said Franc.
Franc, who said he has spoken to top House Republican aides, said Boehner and other leaders in the chamber are “at ease” over the stand-off with the Senate.
“Boehner isn’t going to try to stand in the way of his caucus,” he said.
Part of Pattern
Democrats seized on Boehner’s rejection of the Senate measure as evidence the speaker and his party were captive to freshman Republicans elected with support of the Tea Party movement.
“This is part of a pattern that we are seeing where Speaker Boehner allows the Tea Party wing of his caucus to sabotage these bipartisan agreements,” Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said in an interview on Bloomberg Television.
Recent polls show the public doesn’t like the gridlock in Congress, and House Republicans are taking a tougher hit than Democrats.
A Dec. 7-11 Pew Research Center poll found 40 percent of adults blame Republican leaders for a “do-nothing” Congress, while 23 percent blame Democrats.
The speaker’s decision to oppose the Senate legislation also raised questions about whether he was out of sync with McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who negotiated the two-month extension with Democratic leaders.
“It has never been the case that the Senate votes at 90 percent, with overwhelming majorities from both parties, without communication with their counterparts in the House,” White House spokesman Carney said.
Boehner’s rejection of the deal McConnell backed came just weeks after the Senate minority leader’s hand was weakened in the debate when 25 Republicans voted against a payroll tax cut extension plan he offered in the Senate as an alternative to a Democratic bill that included a surtax on millionaires. The proposal was rejected, 76-22.
The House’s refusal to agree to the Senate’s deal caught Senate Republicans off guard, even those like Utah Senator Orrin Hatch who overcame his objection to the payroll-tax cut and voted for the compromise.
“This is probably a done deal in the House,” Hatch said on Dec. 17. “It should be.”
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