Elise Amendola, Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney refused to be pinned down Wednesday on how Congress should break an impasse that threatens to raise taxes for 160 million workers — the latest pressing policy debate the Republican presidential hopeful has sidestepped. Rival Newt Gingrich, in contrast, castigated Congress for "an absurd dereliction of duty."
With less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the two rivals exchanged ever sharper words over a barrage of negative ads coming from Romney's allies as they took a divergent approach on the payroll tax dispute deadlocking Washington.
"I'm not going to get into the back-and-forth on the congressional sausage-making process," Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said in Keene, N.H., as the day began. "I hope they're able to sit down and work out a solution that works for the American people. My hope is that the solution includes extension of the payroll tax holiday."
But Romney left open the terms for an extension, which is the crux of the stalled debate in Washington. He suggested it should last more than two months and ideally a year, but called such details "deep in the weeds."
House Republicans rejected a bipartisan compromise in the Senate that would have kept the tax cuts going for two months, instead calling for talks seeking a one-year extension. The cuts expire Jan. 1 unless Congress acts, and there is little chance of achieving that in time to head off a hit in people's paychecks.
In Iowa, Gingrich called a two-month extension "insufficient" and scolded the Democratic-controlled Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama's administration for "lurching from failure to failure" and marveled: "They can't figure out how to pass a one-year extension, so the Senate leaves town?"
"It's game-playing," added the former House speaker, who stopped short of criticizing House Republicans and their leader Ohio Rep. John Boehner. Gingrich also did not criticize Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader who signed off on the short-term extension.
With that, the two Republicans leading the GOP primary field in polls took different approaches to an urgent issue that has ramifications for millions of Americans. Gingrich jumped in — though saving his scorn for Democrats — while Romney avoided the fray.
The different postures over the payroll tax extension played out against a backdrop of intensifying rancor — and a dispute over negative advertising — between Romney and Gingrich with the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses drawing close.
Romney argued that Gingrich wasn't strong enough to withstand the criticism coming his way, especially from $2.8 million in ads by the pro-Romney group Restore Our Future. The group is going after Gingrich relentlessly in Iowa and exacting a price in the former speaker's standing in polls.
"I'm sure I could go out and say, 'Please, don't do anything negative,'" Romney said on Fox News. "But this is politics. And if you can't stand the heat in this little kitchen, wait until Obama's Hell's Kitchen turns up the heat."
Gingrich shot back from Manchester, N.H.: "If he wants to test the heat, I'll meet him anywhere in Iowa next week." He went on: "If he wants to try out the kitchen, I'll be glad to debate him anywhere. We'll bring his ads and he can defend them."
Gingrich tried to show he was aiming for a higher road. He started collecting petition signatures from like-minded people who don't want to see the Republican candidates ripping into each other.
"Attacking fellow Republicans only helps one person: Barack Obama," the petition states.
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