Republican Payroll Tax Gamesmanship Risks A Government Shutdown

Isaiah J. Poole

Congressional Republicans know what must be done. If they do not act in good faith, millions of workers will face a significant hit in their paychecks once a temporary payroll tax reduction expires, and several million long-term unemployment people will lose their jobless benefits.

Yet today House Republicans are once again voting on a bill that they know will not see the light of a presidential signing and is not in the public interest—and in doing so they are now flirting with a government shutdown.

That’s because Senate Democrats have linked the payroll tax extension to efforts to pass a 2012 budget agreement in response to the threat that House Republicans would jam legislative poison pills down the nation’s throat.

Talking Points Memo’s Brian Beutler explains:

Senate Democrats and the White House are executing a strategy to prevent House Republicans from jamming them with legislation to extend the current payroll tax cut that’s been larded up with GOP goodies, according to White House and Congressional aides. For all practical purposes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has linked the payroll tax issue — and other key end-of-the-year issues — with legislation to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. And he’s presenting Republicans with a choice: deal in good faith on the payroll tax issue, or trigger a government shutdown.

Democrats were worried that House Republicans would close ranks around a version of a payroll holiday that included both must-pass items (such as an extension of unemployment insurance and a patch to prevent Medicare physicians from experiencing a severe pay cut on the first of the year) and GOP poison pills (including a provision forcing the Obama administration to give thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the Keystone XL oil pipeline within 60 days)…then pass it and skip town, leaving Democrats little choice but to swallow their bill whole.

On the Keystone XL pipeline in particular, the right-wing noise machine has gone into overdrive. One example is The Heritage Foundation missive earlier today denouncing President Obama’s veto threat against the legislation “all because of his opposition to the single measure in the bill that would create jobs,” referring to the pipeline. That’s even though the White House veto message today makes no mention of the pipeline.

Republicans think they can checkmate Obama on the jobs issue by casting his administration as obstructionist on the pipeline. But, as a New York Times editorial points out, this is an argument over a project that will directly create 6,500 construction jobs and perhaps 50 permanent jobs—and will primarily serve as a conduit of fuel that will be exported by Gulf Coast refiners, rather than used in America. The question of whether the significant environmental risks are worth it is a serious one, and the Obama administration’s specialists should be allowed to take it seriously. Instead, Republicans want to impose an artificial deadline that’s based on politics, not science.

There is a whole box of poison tea bags in the House bill, including a plan to raise premiums for some Medicare recipients, a loophole that will allow coal plants to continue spewing harmful pollutants into the air, and a longer salary freeze for federal workers.

The legislation would also cut the length of time jobless people could collect long-term unemployment benefits, from 99 weeks to 59 weeks, a provision that the National Employment Law Coalition said would actually cost the economy 140,000 jobs as the impact of the reduced benefits ripples through the economy.

Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., said on the House floor that many of the Republican add-ons are there because “a paycheck is better than an unemployment check.” Yet Republicans have voted against measure after measure that would actually create jobs, including each of the elements of President Obama’s jobs program earlier this fall.

If Republicans actually valued paychecks in the hands of unemployed people, they would be debating the legislation that the Congressional Progressive Caucus introduced today, which would create up to 4 million jobs, many of them right away. But it is the conservative ideologues and the corporate lobbyists, not the unemployed, that are the real preoccupation of congressional conservatives—even if their fealty to Wall Street and K Street brings the government to a halt.

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