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House Republicans wrestle with next step in fight over tax-cut deal

By Kathleen Hennessey and Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — Faced with criticism from within the party, House Republicans wrestled Monday night with the next step in their politically risky and increasingly isolated battle against a bipartisan deal to preserve a tax break for working Americans.

After calling lawmakers back to Washington, the GOP-led House first delayed and then canceled an evening vote on a Senate-brokered compromise to extend a payroll tax cut for two months. House Republicans said they remained opposed to a short-term deal, but were rethinking strategy on how to achieve their preferred goal: a one-year tax cut paid for with spending cuts and new revenue.

The maneuvering underscored the political rabbit trick House Republicans are trying to pull off. They are nearly alone in Washington in their opposition to the short-term compromise, which passed the Senate with overwhelming Republican support. President Barack Obama, though he had asked for a one-year extension as part of his jobs plan, endorsed the deal as the best way to avoid a tax increase when last year’s provision expires on Dec. 31.

After passing the bill on Saturday, the Senate left town for the holidays and is not scheduled to return until Jan. 23.

That’s left the House and its cast of hard-charging conservatives looking for leverage and criticizing the Senate for passing along bad policy. At a closed-door meeting late Monday, the GOP troops rallied around references to the film “Braveheart” as they dug in for a prolonged battle.

“Our members do not want to just punt and do a two-month short-term fix where we have to come back and do this again. We’re here. We’re willing to work,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Boehner had declared Monday morning that he expected the House to vote down the Senate deal and then vote to initiate new negotiations.

But as the day wore on, lawmakers appeared increasingly hesitant to be seen voting against the tax-cut compromise. Late Monday night, leaders instead crafted a bill that would allow lawmakers to vote in favor of something — a measure disagreeing with the Senate deal and initiating a conference committee.

The pressure to pass the deal was mounting from Democrats and Republicans. Several GOP senators questioned the House GOP’s strategy. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., called the House’s rejecting of the Senate bill “irresponsible and wrong.” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, urged the House to pass the Senate bill. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said the Senate bill was “best for the country.”

Their complaints were echoed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and the White House, neither of which indicated any willingness — or political motivation — to revive talks.

Middle-class tax cuts are popular with voters and economists. Sinking their teeth into an issue they think favors them, Democrats presented the Senate deal as the last ship sailing and geared up to blame Republicans for the looming tax hike, which would increase taxes an average of $1,000 annually for workers.

“If Republicans vote down the bipartisan compromise negotiated by Republican and Democratic leaders, and passed by 89 senators including 39 Republicans, their intransigence will mean that in 10 days, 160 million middle-class Americans will see a tax increase,” Reid said Monday.

This could not have been the place Boehner aimed to land when last week he urged the Senate to pass its own bill and let Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell lead the talks. The move was a shift for Boehner, who had engaged with Reid and the president directly in last summer’s talks over raising the debt ceiling and cutting spending.

But the brokered agreements Boehner has brought to the House have encountered increasing opposition from his rank-and-file, particularly with conservatives who show scant allegiance to the speaker and no patience for Washington’s deal-making ways. Boehner lost 101 of 242 Republican votes in a November vote on a spending bill, a surprise blow and an indication of his limited control.

Now Boehner has come under criticism for failing, or being unable, to push his troops in line behind the compromise.

The White House tried to cast Boehner as reversing himself in an effort to cater to conservatives in his rank. “So he was for it before he was against it,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.

Boehner denied that account and said he raised concerns about settling for a short-term deal before it was done.

The president has delayed his Hawaiian vacation while Congress searches for a solution. Carney suggested that Obama will stay in Washington if the impasse over the payroll tax cut persists.

While Democrats hammered Republicans for potentially allowing a tax increase, Republicans argued that they were the lone defenders of good policy and work ethic in Washington — and their criticism included their Republican colleagues.

Also Monday, a national payroll consortium warned that companies may find applying the stopgap measure unworkable due to technical difficulties, a prospect the GOP seized on to make its case for the broader one-year deal.

Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., said he was “very troubled” by the Senate Republicans agreeing to the deal.

“I will freely admit I do not understand why my Republican colleagues in the Senate went along with this,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., who said he was fired up for the fight.

“Maybe this is the beauty of being a freshman, you don’t know what you’re up against when it comes to old Washington and their expectations,” he said. “I’m sorry we’re going to be the skunk at the garden party with a bunch of people who want to go home for Christmas.”

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