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Dec 21 2011

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The Breathtaking Hubris of House Republicans

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House Republicans Behaving Badly

2011 has been a hard year, politically.

Political sparring on the debt ceiling heaped collateral damage on financial markets and consumer confidence as we considered for the first time the real implications of the draconian cuts to the federal budget necessary to fund a government without borrowing authority.

Twice since, the government has flirted with a shutdown as routine Continuing Resolutions (CRs) have become surrogates in  ideological fights over taxes and spending.

These concerted actions have taken a toll on Congress’ reputation.  According to an NBC poll, 75 percent of voters rated Congress as below average. When asked by CNN whether Congress had done something to address problems facing the country, 69 percent said no.

That is significant as all of the budgetary near-misses this year were instigated by the uncompromising posture of House Republicans; more specifically the “Frosh 87” who won election in 2010 by taking a hard line on taxes and spending during their campaigns.

Now, apparently headless of those abysmal polling numbers, House Republicans have again sabotaged the budget process, by refusing to sign on to a temporary measure that would extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, and fund reimbursements to Medicare doctors.

After Senate passage of the tax package and the Senate’s recess for the year, the House leadership stepped out of the shadows to insist instead on a full year extension of the payroll tax cut, not simply the two-month extension in the Senate bill.

Procedurally, as these spending provisions expire on December 31st, it was clearly incumbent on the House leadership to advise their Senate counter-parts as to what could pass the House, to make the most efficient use of limited time. Inexplicably, the House stood by, Zen-like, as the Senate took action, creating the appearance of tacit agreement when there was apparently none; at least among House Republicans.

And protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the GOP position here is one of weakness not strength.

Yesterday, Speaker John Boehner refused to bring the Senate bill to the floor for an up or down vote as it would likely have passed on the votes of Democrats and pragmatic Republicans, fracturing the GOP conference and threatening Boehner’s leadership.

Instead, Boehner threw his lot in with the Frosh-87 with a bill that kicked the the payroll tax problem  -that the House itself created – back to the Senate, requesting a regular-order “conference” between the House and Senate to work out the differences between their two approaches to a full year payroll tax cut.

Conferences, in the best of times, take weeks to hash out compromises. And it is not as if the clear grounds of a compromise are at hand. Indeed, the reason the Senate agreed to a two-month extension in the first place was that there is no middle ground between the parties on the budget offsets necessary to pay for the tax relief.

Under the circumstances, it would be one thing if we were in mid-September and there was ample time to negotiate. But for House Republicans to take this approach ten calendar days before the end of the year is simply madness.

Right now, unless the Senate comes back into session, appoints conferees, hashes out a deal, and then sends that deal back for affirmative votes in both chambers – in ten days – Republicans will have been responsible for a tax hike on working Americans, leaving millions without unemployment benefits and casting a cloud of uncertainty for doctors who normally see Medicare patients.

Where is the benefit?

Republicans have been principled all year in opposing tax increases across the board. Yet now, at their instigation, the GOP is going to allow taxes to go up on working class and middle class Americans?

And its inconceivable – as some Republicans maintain – that the public is going to blame Democrats for this mess. The Democrats have alreaday done their part.  While the Senate compromise on temporary spending is far from ideal, it does represent what was politically achievable, and it keeps money in the pockets of Americans after January 1st. There is nothing in the House Republican approach that guarantees that result.

The problem with the House approach – and the Frosh-87 in particular – is their continuing insistence on making perfect the enemy of the good.

In forcing Boehner’s hand, the Frosh-87 have left Republicans without a credible end game.  Indeed, the Republican strategy is now at the mercy of Senate Democrats who may have an entirely different read on the political outcome of a tax increase.

Unwittingly, the Frosh-87 will have provided concrete evidence to one of the Democrats’ most egregious campaign attack lines – that the GOP only favors tax cuts for the wealthy, at the expense of the middle class.

Unless the Senate acts, Speaker Boehner’s only alternative to a tax increase will be to bring up the Senate bill and pass it on a bipartisan vote, a vote that will infuriate the Frosh-87 and fracture the caucus.  Having thrown down the gauntlet on the tax measure, it would be a humiliation for Boehner and necessarily call into question his leadership.

To paraphrase Omar Bradley, this tax issue is the wrong fight, at the wrong time, on the wrong issue.

For a nominal gain, the Republicans risk shredding their brand and threaten to upend the rosy political calculus that favored significant Republican gains in the Senate while maintaining a majority in the House in 2012 – all by handing the Democrats the sword to beat them with.

What an unexpected and valuable gift to the Democrats.

What a colossal and unnecessary disappointment for the rest of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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