WASHINGTON -- House leaders Monday night delayed their vote on a short-term payroll tax holiday, and in the process aired a rare repudiation of their GOP colleagues in the Senate.
Those colleagues -- 39 of them, including the Senate Republican leadership -- voted for a 2-month extension of the 2 percent tax break, then voted unanimously to recess until next year, apparently believing they had a deal the House would accept.
But the Tea Party-dominated House rebelled, and after first saying it would vote down the Senate plan Monday night, delayed the vote until Tuesday and set it up using procedures that guarantee the bill cannot go straight to the president's desk for signature.
"The message coming out of our conference tonight is our members want to make sure that we're here to continue work until Congress passes a year-long extension of the payroll tax holiday," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)., emerging from a closed caucus meeting that lasted more than two hours and was often punctuated by cheers.
"We outright reject the attempt by the Senate to kick the can down for 60 days. It's an unworkable solution," Cantor said.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was more direct in criticizing the work of his fellow leader, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), suggesting the senator didn't have the authority to cut a deal on behalf of the House GOP, and that the deal he cut was no good.
"I made it clear to Sen. Reid and to Sen. McConnell that the House was not going to enter into a negotiation until such time as the Senate did its job. We disagree with what the Senate produced," Boehner said. "They did their job. They produced a bill. The House disagrees with it."
The tax break is worth about $1,000 a year to average workers and is set to expire on Jan. 1.
Senate Democrats said they had been led to believe that McConnell had the authority to bargain on Boehner's behalf, and still believed that Monday night.
"The clear understanding was that we'd work with McConnell, and McConnell was going to police for Boehner, not let anything through that would be too problematic for Boehner," a Senate Democratic aide said.
A Republican aide countered that Boehner was right in saying the negotiating would come after the Senate crafted its package. Nevertheless, McConnell and the rest of the Senate voted unanimously to recess until late January 2012 after they passed their two-month extension overwhelmingly, 89 to 10, suggesting no one expected they'd be called back.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) insists the Senate has done its job to stop the tax cut from expiring, and has warned the Senate will not return.
Democrats also complained that Republicans were intentionally killing the measure.
Initially, the House Republicans planned to hold a standard vote on a "motion to concur" with the Senate tax cut extension, which is part of a $33 billion package that also prevents unemployment benefits from running out and doctors' Medicare payments from being slashed 27 percent.
But in a heated meeting of the Rules Committee that determines how votes are held, the motion was changed to a "motion to reject."
What was originally scheduled to be three votes -- a vote on the Senate bill, a vote to go into conference with the Senate to change the bill, and a vote on a nonbinding resolution relating to the debate -- turned into one. The final rule that passed the committee, along party lines, allows for a single vote to reject a motion to agree with the Senate bill. If the motion is rejected, the bill is sent to a conference committee.
Democrats cried foul, saying that a vote to concur could send the bill on to President Obama if it passed -- and that GOP leaders feared it might. The motion to reject a measure, however, can only send the bill to a conference committee. Republicans could then say that Democrats don't want to find a solution, Democrats argued, shifting some blame should the tax cut expire.
But Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said a vote to reject the Senate bill and send it to conference is "exactly" the same as a vote to concur with the bill.
It is still "regular order" for the House to specifically vote to "reject" a bill versus holding an up-or-down vote on a bill, Dreier said. Anyone who supports the Senate bill can simply "vote in opposition to that motion to go to conference."
Democrats scoffed at the idea. "Oh please," House Rules Committee ranking member Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said in response to Dreier's assertion. "I hope everybody has read 'Alice in Wonderland.' She felt her best attribute was to believe six impossible things before breakfast," she said. "I can't believe six impossible things before breakfast."
Democrats had already contended that the original House bill -- loaded with extraneous measures to limit pollution regulations and to allow drug testing of the unemployed -- was an attempt to scuttle the issue, and that the House was now trying a different tactic since the Senate dropped most of those "poison pills."
"House Republicans claim to support this middle-class tax cut, but they are really trying to bury it in a committee," complained Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). "Speaker Boehner is using one of the oldest tricks in Washington of claiming to support something and then sending it to a legislative graveyard where it never sees the light of day."
If Reid does not bring his members back, the committee would never function, and the bill would die. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also said she would not appoint conferees.
While GOP aides disagreed that the measure would be killed in a conference committee -- insisting that the point is to get Democrats to end their vacation and work out a year-long deal -- they admitted the move was designed to force the committee to happen.
"We are arguing for a conference committee to produce a final product. That has been our argument all day," the senior aide said. "I thank Dem flacks for highlighting our argument."
While Republicans may be able to shift some blame, they are still left in the position of voting down an overwhelmingly bipartisan agreement that guaranteed the tax cut would not expire for at least another two months.
Senate leaders agreed to the two-month plan when they failed to agree on how to pay for the $200 billion full-year extension. Their idea was to get past the immediate deadline and give themselves more time. They were about $100 billion short in selecting ways to offset the costs, sources said, before they settled on the two-month extension.