Once again, the country is facing the possibility of a government shutdown while Congress continues to fiddle away. Same song, another verse. The most recent Continuing Resolution (CR) expires at midnight tonight, but Republicans and Democrats have said the FY 2012 appropriations package needed to fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year will be completed without the need for an extension of the CR. The irony is that House and Senate appropriators have said repeatedly the main obstacle to floor debate and a bill’s likely passage is the ‘slow-track’ strategy agreed upon by the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to keep the appropriations omnibus off the table until an agreement is reached on Obama’s signature measure, extension of the payroll tax holiday.
The payroll tax extension bill quickly moved from what Democratic lawmakers had hoped would be a simple and bipartisan passage into a display of brinksmanship breathtaking even for this Congress. Though the legislation centers on the extension of a major tax break, it also includes an extension of the jobless benefits program set to expire in January. Funding proposals for this bill have highlighted the partisan divide between the parties: Democrats envisioned a tax on those with incomes above one million dollars to pay for a majority of the extension while Republicans sought to fund the measure primarily with a two-year pay freeze on all government employees. In order to gain support for the package from its most conservative members, the Republican House leadership inserted a series of provisions into the legislation designed to ‘sweeten’ the deal. These provisions, however, include a number of issues of concern to Democrats including an expedited decision on construction of the contentious Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project, restrictions on environmental regulation, and funding cuts to the 2010 health care legislation among others.
Despite assurances of its defeat in the Democratic-controlled Senate as well as a veto threat from the White House, the House passed its version of the payroll tax extension bill Tuesday evening by a near party-line vote of 234-193. This sent the legislation to the Senate floor, where the unexpected is to be expected. Senator Reid called for a Senate vote on the House bill he had previously pledged to defeat. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) immediately blocked the request for a vote on the tax cut extension that his own party had just passed in the House. It is all part of a dangerous game, where each side hopes that the other will blink first.
Yesterday afternoon the emails were flying with news that the House will vote on the Omnibus Conference Report today, the Senate will then pass that bill on Saturday and send it to POTUS for law. This will complete the nine remaining spending bills. Reid and McConnell are apparently close to a deal on the payroll tax and expect to have it on the Senate floor Saturday. The House will take up that bill on Sunday and send it to POTUS for law. Then, and only then, the First Session of the 112th Congress will adjourn. We can only be sure when the fat lady sings “Halleluiah!”
Written by Leslie Mozingo, The Ferguson Group