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Congress Pursues Extenders Accord

Bipartisan Agreement on Appropriations Bills Might Still Stall Amid Payroll Tax Cut Melee

The House on Tuesday takes the first shot at what Members hope will become a bipartisan agreement on tax provisions affecting millions of Americans, even as the legislative calendar winds down.

Leaving Washington, D.C., last week united behind their proposal, House Republicans will attempt to pass their version of a payroll tax cut extension Tuesday with little help from Democrats.

Their “extenders” package includes an extension of long-term unemployment insurance benefits and halts cuts to Medicare reimbursements for doctors. It also includes a provision that would fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline project and would cut off some funding for the health care reform law — non-starters for Democratic leaders.

On Monday, Speaker John Boehner defended inclusion of the pipeline proposal, saying, “If the American people want jobs, this is as close to a shovel-ready plan as you’re going to see.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said the GOP’s extenders bill cannot pass his chamber, setting the stage for a battle that could stretch into the weekend and beyond.

Boehner dismissed charges that the GOP extenders bill is little more than a political ploy given opposition within the Senate. When asked whether he thought it had a realistic chance of passage, the Ohio Republican said, “I think we have a good shot. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be in there.”

The battle over the payroll tax cut might also spill over into the attempt to wrap up fiscal 2012 appropriations, which before Monday was assumed to be on a glide path to passage.

Several sources suggested Monday that Senate Democrats could attempt to keep the appropriations omnibus package in legislative limbo until an agreement can be reached on the extenders package. If this is the case, and with four days before the current spending bill runs out, it appears lawmakers are positioning themselves to flirt with government shutdown yet again.

But while each side would attempt to blame the other in the seemingly unending game of getting the quick political score, it’s unclear which would win such a battle. If the House were to send an appropriations package to the Senate, Democrats could say that they did not want to pass the bill until Republicans also sent an acceptable compromise on extenders.

The message from Democrats would be that Republicans were holding the government and a middle-class tax break hostage to special interest riders.

Republicans, in turn, could tell Democrats that they had sent both bills to the Senate and that by refusing to move until they get what they want, Democrats were the ones risking a shutdown.

President Barack Obama already has threatened to reject a package that comes to his desk with “extraneous” provisions, such as the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. And the Christmas holiday is creeping up on lawmakers and aides who want to go home.

Although lawmakers hope to wrap up by the end of the week, Boehner declined to say whether the House will leave town without an extenders bill being passed by the Senate. “I think we’re going to have to wait until a little later in the week to see what the Senate is going to do,” the GOP leader said.

Aides to Reid and Senate Democratic
Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who runs Senate Democrats’ messaging operations, did not respond to several requests for comment.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is actively working against the extenders package bill and has promised that House Democrats will not help the GOP pass the plan.

Nevertheless, Republicans picked up their first Democrat to straggle across party lines Monday. Rep. Dan Boren said the addition of the pipeline, which would run through his state of Oklahoma, sealed his vote over the weekend, and he might try to convince more Blue Dog Democrats like himself to support the bill.

“I voted to repeal the health care bill, so that’s not an issue,” said Boren, who is retiring after this term.

The sticking points with the GOP’s extenders package goes beyond the oil-sands pipeline. Republicans also have suggested a major overhaul of the unemployment insurance program, which would grant much more leniency and authority to the states while also creating a mandate for high school equivalency testing programs and allowing states to make aid contingent upon passing drug tests.

The bill does not provide extra funds at the federal level or to the states to assist unemployed Americans without high school diplomas either to enroll in GED courses or even to take the test, which costs an average of $75 nationwide.

A similar unemployment program overhaul passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee last May along party lines, and even Senate Republican aides have questioned whether such major changes could be implemented in a matter of days, despite acknowledgment from both parties that reforms are necessary.

Senate Democratic leaders are preparing a year-end package of their own to counter the legislation that House Republican leaders introduced Friday.

House and Senate appropriators worked through the weekend on a package of nine bills to keep the government funded. Barring something unforseen, a Thursday vote is expected in the House.

Appropriators were fine-tuning their differences Monday. Conferees had been expected to file the conference report Monday evening, but they are now expected to file the package Tuesday.

Negotiations over policy riders were the principal hang-up. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) was insisting on a provision that would undo Obama’s relaxation of long-standing travel restrictings to Cuba, keeping the financial services and general government spending bill in flux, Democrats said.

“We don’t know if that’s going to be one of the riders that holds up,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the subcommittee. “There are outstanding issues all over the place.”

Rep. Jim Moran, ranking member on the subcommittee dealing with the Environmental Protection Agency, which had been another sticking point for riders, said his bill had been completed, with language dealing with timber harvest and grazing remaining and the EPA set to sustain a nearly $300 million budget cut.

“I was still fairly pessimistic last week, but now I’m fairly optimistic,” the Virginia Democrat said.

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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