WASHINGTON — Barely beating Santa's sleigh, Congress delivered a last-minute holiday tax-cut extension to 160 million American wage-earners on Friday, just when it looked like they and millions of unemployed workers were going to be left with coal in their stockings.
It was a major yearend political victory for President Barack Obama, a big slice of humble pie for House Republicans and a blow to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who'll have an angry band of tea party lawmakers to deal with when Congress returns to Washington next month.
Back-to-back voice vote approvals of the two-month special measure by the Senate and House came in mere seconds with no debate, just days after House Republican leaders had insisted that reopening negotiations on a full-year bill was the only way to persuade them to prevent a tax increase on Jan. 1.
Obama immediately signed the bill into law.
"I said it was critical for Congress not to go home without preventing a tax increase on 160 million working Americans and I'm pleased to say that they got it done," a buoyant looking Obama said at the White House before dashing off for his delayed holiday vacation to his home state of Hawaii.
Actually most lawmakers were long gone. A token few showed up to make approval official.
The legislation buys time for talks early next year on how to finance the year-long extensions — negotiations that promise to be contentious, especially if Democrats continue to use Obama's jobs agenda to seek a political edge in the 2012 presidential and congressional campaigns.
The measure will keep in place a 2 percentage point cut in the Social Security payroll tax — worth about $20 a week for a typical worker making $50,000 a year — and prevent almost 2 million unemployed people from losing jobless benefits averaging $300 a week. Doctors will win a reprieve from a 27 percent cut in their Medicare payments, the product of a 1997 cut that Congress has been unable to permanently fix.
Republicans did claim a major victory, winning a provision that would require Obama to make a swift decision on whether to approve construction of the Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline, which could generate thousands of construction jobs. To stop construction, Obama, who had wanted to put the decision off until after the 2012 election, would have to declare it was not in the nation's interest.
On Friday, an expressionless Boehner read from a piece of paper before him, gaveled the House's last session of the year closed and stepped off the podium on the Democratic side.
Boehner had been open to the Senate's version of the legislation a week ago, even though it would have punted the issue into February and given Democrats a proven political issue. But tea party forces and some in his own leadership revolted, insisting on picking a holiday fight with Democrats, and Boehner felt no choice but to go along.
The battle turned out to be a loser for House Republicans, earning the ire of swing voters and many in the GOP establishment, but when Boehner capitulated on Thursday he then felt the lash from hard-core conservatives.
"Even though there is plenty of evidence this is a bad deal for America ... the House has caved yet again to the president and Senate Democrats," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.
Meanwhile, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid of Nevada did a victory lap, twisting the knife into tea party Republicans.
"I hope this Congress has had a very good learning experience, especially those who are newer to this body," Reid said. "Everything we do around here does not have to wind up in a fight."
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