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Payroll Tax Cut Standoff Begins

Congress settled in for an old-fashioned staring contest today with House Republicans on one side and the White House and the entire Senate on the other over extending a popular payroll tax cut set to expire Jan. 1.

The standoff marks an ostensibly ugly end to an ugly year of bitter partisan fighting, gridlock and general acrimony in Washington, D.C., that has sent Congress’ approval ratings tumbling to record lows with no end in sight.

The Senate already adjourned for the year after passing a two-month extension to provide more negotiating time, but House Republicans rejected that bill today and sought to force a conference committee to forge a full one-year deal — before sending the bulk of their Members home for the Christmas holiday.

With the Democrats so far refusing to appoint conferees and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) essentially missing in action since the Senate closed up shop Saturday, Speaker John Boehner’s decision to appoint his committee members was, at least for now, little more than a symbolic gesture designed to pressure Democrats.

One of the Ohio Republican’s picks, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), said the negotiators’ game plan is unclear at this point, except that the group will stick around Capitol Hill to put heat on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The group had plans to meet this evening.

“I’m certainly planning to stay, or at least certainly not leaving today,” Brady said. “We’re going to continue to call on Senator Reid … to come to the table with us.”

House Democrats, however, have followed Reid’s lead and dug in, not just refusing to appoint conferees but also calling the House Republicans-only conference committee a sham and promising to keep doing so until the House passes the Senate-passed bill.

“They’re obviously using this as a ploy to prevent the payroll tax cut extension,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said. “It rings a little hollow to say they’re opposing a two-months’ extension and they want a full year when they were opposed to a full-year extension just a couple of months ago.”

Boehner’s negotiators include two committee chairmen: Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), both of whom were recently on the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.

Boehner also chose Chairman of House Republican Leadership Greg Walden (Ore.); three freshmen, Reps. Renee Ellmers (N.C.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.) and Tom Reed (N.Y.); and Tom Price (Ga.), who along with Brady is a member of the Ways and Means Committee. Price is also a member of the Republican Doctors Caucus, which has been outspoken on patching a scheduled pay cut to doctors, also known as the “doc fix,” which is part of both the Senate and House payroll tax cut bills.

Senate Democrats have been happy to stand back and watch House Republicans fight a multiple-front war, first Monday against their Senate GOP counterparts and then today, with House Democrats launching a media blitz on the floor and in the press room.

Democrats also said they feel no pressure to jump at a conference, arguing the GOP has set a recent precedent for ignoring conference report entreaties: It has refused to name conferees for a Federal Aviation Administration bill for more than a year.

Vulnerable Senate Republicans in 2012 have also been demanding the House GOP take up the compromise, as Democrats on the other side of the dome have reveled in the apparent intraparty chaos.

But more broadly, the holiday season bitterness was the symbol of a broader dysfunction that has crippled Congress for most of the year.

To be sure, Congressional dysfunction is nothing new; long gone are the days of completing appropriations bills months before the end of the fiscal year or weeks-long December recesses. For years, leaders have used recess deadlines and threats of weekend sessions to muscle unruly conferences into line.

But the level of dysfunction that has characterized the 112th Congress may be unparalleled.

Aside from passage of trade agreements in September and a handful of minor policy bills, virtually the only bills that have made it to President Barack Obama’s desk have either been appropriations measures, the most basic function of Congress, or emergency stopgap bills to avert government shutdowns or credit downgrades. And even those have come only after Congress took itself and the nation to the brink of collapse.

The reasons for the dysfunction are varied, from gridlock in the closely divided Senate to Boehner’s increasing difficulty in managing the expectations and actions of his unruly conference.

But regardless of the reason why, lawmakers acknowledge they have reached a new low.

When asked about the remarkable level of acrimony in Congress, Rep. Jim Moran asked: “Who’s not saying that? Is there someone that doesn’t think that?

“It was bad in ’95, but it wasn’t this bad. … You’ve got so many Members that came in with the thesis that government can’t function, and now that they’re elected they want to make sure that’s the case. They want to prove it,” the Virginia Democrat added.

Rep. Timothy Johnson, who was one of only seven Republicans to vote against going to conference today, agreed, saying his caucus in particular has become increasingly harsh in its tone.

“It appears right now that they’re relatively uncompromising. But I’m not. I try to be a compromiser,” the Illinois Republican said. “I think it’s important that we demonstrate an ability to reach out, demonstrate an ability to work across the aisle, and I’d like to see us do that.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) echoed those concerns in an interview on CNN tonight, warning a resolution to the standoff must be found.

“It seems to me that Republican leaders and Harry Reid and the Speaker and Congresswoman [Nancy] Pelosi should sit down together with the administration and figure out a way through this,” the Arizona Republican said. “It is harming the Republican Party. It is harming the view, if it’s possible, any more of the American people about Congress. And we’ve got to get this thing resolved.”

Clarification: Dec. 20

An earlier version of this story was not clear about when Congress used to pass appropriations bills.

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