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Leaders Take Shots at Each Other Over Spending, Payroll Tax

In a sign that Congress is no closer to a bipartisan compromise on must-pass, year-end legislation, the Senate’s Democratic and Republican leaders launched into a war of words on the floor this morning.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Republicans are not being sincere in their desire to extend the president’s payroll tax holiday. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Democrats of not only holding the tax break hostage in their refusal to consider an oil pipeline rider, but also in holding up a government spending bill until there is agreement on the tax and benefits package.

And neither side agrees on whether they’ve already agreed to an omnibus appropriations bill to keep the government funded past Dec. 16.

“The Majority Leader signaled yesterday that he and the president are so determined to turn even the most bipartisan job-creating legislation into a political issue that he’ll ask his Members to hold off on signing the government-funding legislation they’ve already agreed to — just to hand the president what they view as a political victory this week,” McConnell said. “This isn’t just irresponsible, it’s reckless.”

House Republicans also say that the deal on a sweeping spending bill is done. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) emerged from his caucus meeting Tuesday congratulating negotiators on their hard work and called on Senate Democrats to sign the conference report so he can bring the bill to the floor.

“When it comes to the minibus, I’m going to say that the appropriators, both Democrats and Republicans, both the House and the Senate, have worked hard the last six weeks to put this bill together. They’ve smiled at each other, they’ve shook hands, and it’s done,” Boehner said. “And I’m hopeful that the Senate leaders will come to their senses, allow Members to sign the report and move forward. There’s no reason to hold this bill.”

The House is scheduled to vote this afternoon on its version of the payroll tax cut extension, which includes provisions to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to go forward, among other things.

On the floor today, Reid indicated that the only way both measures would get passed is if Boehner works on compromises, noting that he said as much to the Ohio Republican yesterday.

“I said to him as serious as I could, ‘We’re not going to finish the work of our country this year unless we work together. You can’t pass anything in the House unless you get Democratic votes, because anything you pass with strictly Republican votes fails over here. And we can’t pass anything unless we get Republican votes,’” Reid said. “It’s a fact of life.”

Several sources suggested Monday that Senate Democrats may try to hold up the spending bill as a wedge to force House Republicans to negotiate on the payroll tax measure. Senate Democratic sources today added that no deal had been reached on the package that would keep the government funded.

Democratic aides were quick to say today that if Boehner actually had agreement on the spending package, he should bring the bill up for a vote. But without sign off from the Democratic conferees first, it would lose its privileged status as a conference report, put lawmakers in a serious jam for time and risk final passage.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the Democratic ranking members of both the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education were optimistic during a leadership meeting last night. Those bills have housed several of the most controversial policy riders, but the appropriators told Hoyer that significant progress has been made in stripping extraneous provisions.

But there are still a few outstanding issues that must be dealt with before the bill can be wrapped up, Hoyer added.

“I think that the bill itself is 98 percent done. I think there’s some still-lingering issues that I think are workable,” the Maryland Democrat said.

A Senate Democratic source pointed to a handful of sticking points, including on extraneous riders and some spending levels. Democratic aides familiar with the negotiations said they object to a rider on the defense spending bill that allows the military to buy coal as “an alternative fuel,” a rider on the Energy and water bill to prevent the Department of Energy from using funds to enforce incandescent bulb standards, a provision on the financial services measure from Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) that would tighten travel restrictions to Cuba, and a rider on the District of Columbia bill to ban funds to women’s health centers that provide family planning services.

Democrats also said there is still a dispute over the funding levels for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Republicans want to provide less than what the White House believes is necessary to fund the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform bill.

Republicans conceded those issues were contentious at one point, but they insist that a resolution has been reached.

It’s unclear how unpopular these riders would actually be if the bill makes it to the Senate. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told Roll Call Tuesday he supports the Cuban family travel ban and doesn’t believe the rider would hold the bill up in the Senate. And the D.C. family-planning provisions had been approved in previous spending agreements.

Jessica Brady and Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.

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