WASHINGTON — Congress is edging closer to yet another down-to-the wire showdown as House Republicans shun a bipartisan payroll tax cut bill approved by the Senate and prepare to write a package to please rank-and-file GOP lawmakers clamoring for a more conservative version.
The House was returning to work Monday, two days after the Senate easily approved a compromise solidly supported by both parties and left town for a month. The House scheduled a vote late Monday, with leaders saying they would either formally request talks with the Senate on a new bill or make changes in the Senate measure that were uncertain late Sunday.
Without congressional action, the payroll tax would rise 2 percentage points on Jan. 1 — a boost that Democrats eagerly said would be the GOP's fault. The brinksmanship is a familiar pattern this year between the two parties, who have narrowly averted a federal default and several government shutdowns in past fights.
Extending the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits have been a keystone of President Barack Obama's and congressional Democrats' effort to spur a revival of the flaccid economy. Congressional Republican leaders also say they support the idea, but some of their rank-and-file remain unconvinced, saying the unemployment coverage is too generous and that cutting the payroll tax does not create jobs.
The Senate bill would cut the payroll tax, extend jobless benefits and avoid cuts in Medicare payments to doctors through February. Both sides say they want to renew all three for a full year, but bargainers have so far failed to agree on how to pay for a package that size, which could cost roughly $200 billion.
"If House Republicans refuse to pass this bipartisan bill to extend the payroll tax cut, there will be a significant tax increase on 160 million hardworking Americans in 13 days that would damage the economy and job growth," Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said Sunday.
"It is a make-or-break moment for John Boehner's speakership," said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate's No. 3 Democratic leader. "You cannot let a small group at the extreme resort to brinksmanship every time there is a major national issue and try to dictate every move this nation makes."
After Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., struck a deal on their two-month bill Friday night, McConnell expressed optimism that Congress would approve it and lawmakers would revisit the battle in February.
But Boehner, R-Ohio, said Sunday he opposed the Senate bill and wanted a yearlong version and other changes, a stance echoed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
They expressed their views a day after House GOP lawmakers on a conference call voiced vehement opposition to the Senate bill, saying it lacked serious spending cuts. They also said they were tired of their leaders striking compromises and not battling harder for their positions, according to several participants.
"We can find common ground," Boehner said on "Meet the Press" on NBC. Of the Senate bill, he said, "It's just the usual, let's just punt, kick the can down the road" approach.
Boehner did not specify the changes he would like in the bill, but touted "reasonable reductions in spending" and language blocking some Obama administration anti-pollution rules in a yearlong payroll tax bill the House approved last week. That bill covered its costs — more than $180 billion — by carving savings from federal workers, higher-income Medicare recipients, fees paid to insure mortgages and elsewhere.
Reid and Schumer said Sunday that Boehner had asked McConnell and Reid to negotiate a compromise, seemingly suggesting that Boehner had walked away from a deal. Republicans said that is untrue and said the House GOP played no role in last week's bargaining between the Senate leaders.
McConnell offered support for Boehner Sunday. His spokesman, Donald Stewart, said the best way to "provide certainty for job creators, employees and the long-term unemployed is through regular order" — a term used to describe the normal process of negotiations between the House and Senate.
The Senate bill also includes a provision dear to Republicans that would force Obama to approve a proposed Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline within 60 days unless he declares the project would damage the national interest.
Obama had previously said he would make no decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until 2013, allowing him to wait until after next November's elections to choose between two Democratic constituencies: unions favoring the project's thousands of jobs and environmentalists opposed to its potential pollution and massive energy use. Obama initially threatened to kill the payroll tax bill if it included the pipeline language but eventually retreated.
One potential hindrance to quick approval of a new payroll tax bill is the Senate's adjournment. It would take approval from all 100 senators to let the Senate hold any votes before the chamber's late January return.
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