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GOP Leaders, Lawmakers Differ On Payroll Tax Cut

Dec 2, 2011
Originally published on December 5, 2011 3:21 pm

Two different bills calling for an extension of a payroll tax holiday failed to pass the Senate late Thursday, but work on a compromise is continuing on Capitol Hill.

President Obama and Democratic lawmakers put forth concerted efforts to extend the measure, which is set to expire next month. Economists say failure to renew the tax cut, which allows the average American family to keep $900 a year of earnings, would hurt job growth.

Democrats want to pay for the tax holiday with a new tax on income over $1 million — a no-go for Republicans. So the outcome of Thursday's vote on the Democratic measure did not come as a surprise, since a filibuster-proof majority for the bill can only come with the support of at least some Republicans.

GOP Disagreements

More surprising was the outcome of the Republican-sponsored bill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell described the bill on the Senate floor: "Our payroll tax plan would institute a three-year pay freeze on federal civilian employees, including members of Congress. It would also reduce the federal workforce gradually, by 10 percent."

McConnell had said Republicans would set aside their misgivings and support the payroll tax extension. But a majority of Republican senators didn't support the measure put forth by their own party.

It seems that while McConnell and other Republican leaders are onboard with extending the payroll tax cut, rank-and-file Republicans in both chambers aren't so certain that the measure would make a difference.

"There was a lot of pushback on payroll tax holiday," Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said as he walked out of a morning meeting of the House Republican conference Friday.

He says Republican leaders gave lawmakers a clear message at the meeting: "We've got to do something and if you think we can get by without doing it, you're crazy."

But Flake, and it seems quite a few of his colleagues, disagree. "I just think they're wrong on this," he said. "I think they're wrong. I think they're wrong."

Republicans generally aren't opposed to tax cuts, but many of them say they're uncomfortable with a payroll tax holiday because it deals with taxes directly tied to Social Security.

Others, like Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., question its value as an economic stimulus.

Will It Work?

"There are better ways to grow the economy, create jobs and have more money in their pocket than some of the ideas that Democrats and the president have suggested so far," said Garrett.

Garrett's views, however, draw a stark contrast to those of House Speaker John Boehner.

"I don't think there's any question that they payroll tax relief in fact helps the economy," Boehner said Thursday. "You're allowing more Americans, frankly, every working American, to keep more of their money in their pocket. Frankly, that's a good thing."

But when asked if he expected House Republicans to put forth the same sort of resistance that surfaced in the Senate Thursday night, Boehner said only, "Ah, I would hope not."

Some conservatives think Republicans are getting outmaneuvered by Democrats on the payroll tax. Indeed, some Democrats appear to be watching Republican discord with glee, because they feel like the tax holiday is a winning issue.

Democrats On Message

"What is it that the middle class did to the Republicans that they are taking it out on them so harshly?" asks House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

"The Democrats put the heat on passing the payroll tax cut," Pelosi says. "And that disarray may be a result of them feeling the heat. The American people know that this is about fairness."

The payroll tax cut is bringing about a role reversal in the Capitol, where Republicans tend to call out Democrats for trying to raise taxes. Now, it's the Democrats who can say that if the tax holiday isn't extended, the typical family will lose some $900 of take-home pay a year.

And while the political fighting continues in public, behind the scenes, there's word a bipartisan compromise is in the works.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The unemployment rate fell last month to 8.6 percent. That's a big drop from October. But everyone agrees it's still too high. President Obama and congressional Democrats are pushing to extend a payroll tax holiday set to expire next month. Economists say if it does expire, it would hurt job growth. Just last night in the Senate, two bills to extend the tax cut, one from Democrats, the other from Republicans, both failed. NPR's Tamara Keith explains why.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The outcome wasn't a surprise. Democrats want to pay for an extension and expansion of the payroll tax holiday with a new tax on income over $1 million. That's a no-go for Republicans. And to get a filibuster approved majority, Democrats need some Republican support. What's more surprising is what happens with the Republican bill. Here's Minority Leader Mitch McConnell describing it on the Senate floor yesterday.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Payroll tax plan would institute a three-year pay freeze on federal civilian employees, including members of Congress. It would also reduce the federal workforce, gradually, by 10 percent.

KEITH: McConnell said Republicans would put aside their misgivings and support the payroll tax extension. But when their own bill came up for a vote, a majority of Republicans didn't support it. It seems that while the Republican leadership is on board with extending the tax holiday, rank and file Republicans aren't so sure.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF FLAKE: There was a lot of push back on the payroll tax holiday.

KEITH: Jeff Flake is a Republican congressman from Arizona, and that was him as he walked out of a meeting this morning of the House Republican Conference. There, he says, the leadership gave members the following message...

FLAKE: We got to do something. And if you think we can get by without doing it, you're crazy.

KEITH: Well, Flake, and it seems quite a few of his colleagues, disagree.

FLAKE: I just they're wrong on this. I think they're wrong. I think they're wrong.

KEITH: Well, you might think there isn't a tax cut Republicans don't like. Many say they're uncomfortable with the payroll tax holiday because those taxes are tied directly to Social Security. Others question its value as an economic stimulus. Scott Garrett is a Republican congressman from New Jersey.

REPRESENTATIVE SCOTT GARRETT: There are better ways to grow the economy, create jobs and have more money in their pocket than some of the ideas that the Democrats have - and the president has suggested so far.

KEITH: Which is a pretty big contrast from what Speaker John Boehner said yesterday.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I don't think there's any question that the payroll tax relief, in fact, helps the economy. You're allowing more Americans - frankly, every working American - to keep more of their money in their pocket. Frankly, that's a good thing.

KEITH: When asked this morning whether he expected resistance from House Republicans, like what surfaced in the Senate vote, he said...

BOEHNER: I would hope not.

KEITH: A conservative blogger this week wrote that Republicans were getting outmaneuvered by Democrats on the payroll tax. Democrats appear to be watching all of this with glee because they feel like they have a winning issue here.

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: What is it that the middle class did to the Republicans that they are taking it out on them so harshly?

KEITH: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

PELOSI: The Democrats put the heat on passing the payroll tax cut and that disarray may be a result of them feeling the heat. The American people know that this is about fairness.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's a bit of a roll reversal in the Capitol, where it's usually the Republicans who have the simple easy soundbite about how the other guys want to raise your taxes. This time, it's the Democrats who can say if this tax holiday isn't extended, the typical family will lose $900 in take-home pay. And while the fighting continues in public, behind the scenes, there's word a bipartisan compromise is in the works. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.