WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Thursday continued putting pressure on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to pass a short-term payroll tax cut extension, this time citing the support of a GOP ally that perhaps hits Boehner the hardest: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
During remarks at the White House, Obama pressed Boehner to allow for a direct vote on a Senate-passed compromise bill that extends, by two months, a handful of provisions set to expire at the end of the year: a payroll tax cut, some unemployment insurance benefits and a stopgap aimed at preventing automatic cuts to doctors' Medicare reimbursements. House Republican leaders have refused to allow a direct vote on the bill, warning that a short-term tax hike would create economic uncertainty and instead calling for a year-long extension.
The reality, however, is that both parties want a year-long extension but still cannot agree on how to pay for what would be a $200 billion package. The two-month extension is intended to prevent the provisions from expiring as the parties continue hashing out a deal on a larger package.
"The House needs to pass a short-term version of this compromise and then we should negotiate an agreement as quickly as possible to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance for the rest of 2012," Obama said. "Just a few hours ago, this is exactly what the Republican leader of the Senate said we should do. Democrats agree with the Republican leader of the Senate. We should go ahead and get this done. This should not be hard."
McConnell dealt a blow to House Republican leaders earlier Thursday by siding with Democrats and the White House in calling for immediate passage of the short-term package, followed by a commitment by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to go into conference with the House to work out a long-term deal.
"House Republicans sensibly want greater certainty about the duration of these provisions, while Senate Democrats want more time to negotiate the term," McConnell said. "These goals are not mutually exclusive. We can and should do both."
The mere fact that Obama and McConnell agree on something -- McConnell, of course, being the same GOP leader who said in October 2010 that the "single most important thing" for Republicans is getting Obama out of the White House in 2012 -- puts Boehner in an increasingly untenable position. He is facing intense pressure from conservative House Republicans to hold the line on a short-term package, but externally, just about everyone else in both parties supports it.
A slow trickle of House Republicans showed signs of caving on the issue on Thursday.
"While I would prefer a year-long tax holiday, I refuse to let anyone play games with my constituents who stand to face a significant tax hike if we don’t act. That’s why I will support ANY option to extend the payroll tax cut," freshman Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) said in a statement. "If it's a 2-month extension or a year-long extension, I’ll support it, so long as it’s paid for."
Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) also flipped his position and announced support for a two-month payroll tax cut extension. A screenshot of Crawford's website was the subject of fodder on Twitter on Thursday afternoon, showing his statements against and then for the short-term extension.
Middle-class families will be hit with a $1,000 tax hike, or about $40 out of each paycheck, if Congress fails to extend the payroll tax cut by Dec. 31. During his remarks, Obama said that he will sign the Senate-passed bill into law as soon as possible, but so far, the "only reason" it hasn't reached his desk is because of "a faction of House Republicans" who refuse to support it.
"What's happening right now is exactly why people just get so frustrated with Washington," he said. "This isn't a typical Democratic-versus-Republican issue. This is an issue where an overwhelming number of people in both parties agree. How can we not get that done? I mean, has this place become so dysfunctional that even when people agree to things we can't do it?"
Republicans were already able to secure a handful of concessions from Democrats in the Senate-passed bill. It includes language aimed at spurring action on the Keystone pipeline, something Obama resoundingly opposed, and it nixes the Democrat-preferred tax on millionaires as a way to pay for the $33 billion bill. Instead, both parties agreed to pay for the package by imposing new fees on banks that conduct business with mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Shortly after Obama's remarks, Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck signaled that the speaker isn't about to back off his insistence on a year-long extension of the payroll tax cut.
"The forty dollars the President spoke about are important. That's why the House is seeking to provide that tax relief for a full year, rather than only two months," Buck said in a statement. "It's disappointing the President says he agrees with the House's desire for a full-year extension, but has still declined to negotiate with Republicans to make it a reality."