How the House GOP Will Win the Battle Over Payroll Tax

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 20 2011 8:28 PM

The House Always Wins

Congressional Republicans are taking a beating for their payroll tax intransigence. That won’t last.

John Boehner
Flanked by House GOP members, Rep. John Boehner speaks following the House's rejection of the Senate's version of a two-month payroll tax cut extension.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Shortly after they cast their votes, squelching the Senate’s two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday, House Republicans tromped over to the Rayburn room and aligned themselves as if posing for a class picture. At 2:15, House Speaker John Boehner arrived, found his place behind a podium decorated with a sign, and explained why Republicans had decided not to return the Senate’s punt. Instead, they’d chosen to create a new conference committee, to hash out a new compromise, which they hoped to pass at some point.

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“This is the system that our founders gave us,” said Boehner. “It is as old as our nation and as clear as the Constitution.”

“The president has just said he appealed to you personally,” asked radio reporter Todd Zwillich. “He said, ‘I need John Boehner to help out.’ ”


“I need the president to help out, alright?” said Boehner. The Republicans around him broke up, laughing and cheering. Zwillich asked his actual question: Why not just vote on the Senate bill?

“We’ve already taken up the Senate bill,” he said.

“We just did!” muttered one off-mike Republican.

“We rejected it,” said Boehner, “and we voted to go to conference.”

This is not all true, because the vote to go to conference had automatically nixed the Senate bill, and there would be no separate vote on the two-month punt. Washington will have to negotiate a whole new punt, the fourth compromise in a year designed to please no one. (Count ‘em down: 2010 tax deal, 2011 continuing resolution, 2011 debt compromise with bonus “supercommittee.”) The mission this time around: Save the payroll tax cut, which will spot the average family around $1000; extend unemployment insurance; and reimburse doctors for Medicare patients. The not-so-secret political goals: Make sure that the other party takes the blame for this, and save as many policy sweeteners as you possibly can. Democrats are good at that first part. Republicans are very good at the second.

Oh, it’s not like anyone wants to be in this position. “A lot of us warned last year that we would be in this position,” moaned Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., talking to reporters between kabuki votes and kabuki debates. “Just this exact position we’re in today, where people are saying, ‘Hey, you’re raising taxes.’ The speaker took pains to say earlier, we were dealt a bad hand. We dealt ourselves this hand last year.”

What happened last year was that the House and Senate extended the Bush tax cuts through Jan. 1, 2013 while adding some sweeteners for Democrats: the payroll tax cut and 13 months of unemployment insurance. Republicans got little blame for this, as it was the last act of an expiring Congress run by Democrats.