02/15/2012 11:25 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2012

Payroll Tax Cut Deal 'A Long Ways From Getting There,' Top Dem Says

WASHINGTON -- Despite optimism by Republican leaders and assurances Tuesday evening that congressional negotiators had reached a deal to preserve a popular payroll tax cut and federal unemployment insurance, top Democrats in the House said Wednesday morning that the deal is not done.

"We're still a long ways from getting there," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), one of the Democratic members of the committee working on the deal. Becerra stressed that progress had been made. "We hope that things will move forward."

"We've seen this play before," Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) told reporters. "As you all painfully know, things have had the ability to change around here rather rapidly when it appears a deal has been struck and then it appears that deal is no longer in place."

Larson said he hoped that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would be able to marshal Republican support for the deal.

Boehner expressed optimism that the deal would come together by Wednesday night, but declined to tell reporters what reception it was getting from his members.

"If the agreement comes together like I expect it will, the House should vote this week," Boehner said. "I think there's an agreement in principle, but there are a lot of details that are yet to be worked out, and I'm hopeful that that'll be wrapped up today."

Asked how his members could back a payroll deal that would add $100 billion to the deficit, Boehner emphasized that Congress cut $2.1 trillion in the debt-limit debate last year, saying his members were acting to stop Democrats from playing political games.

"We were not going to allow the Democrats to continue to play games and cause a tax increase for hardworking Americans," he said.

Since Tuesday evening, Republican and Democratic staffers have put out different information about the terms of the deal. Democrats have variously said the maximum duration of unemployment insurance would fall from 99 weeks to 89 weeks, or to 75 weeks, or to 73 weeks. Republicans have said the maximum duration would fall to 63 weeks. The two sides have been unable to account for the discrepancy.

The sides agreed that the $100 billion cost of keeping a 2 percentage point cut in the Social Security tax workers pay on every paycheck would be added to the deficit, and that the $50 billion cost of unemployment insurance and the so-called Medicare "doc fix" would be offset with budget cuts elsewhere.

Without a deal, in March doctors will see their Medicare reimbursement rates drop 27 percent, jeopardizing health care for seniors. Several million long-term jobless will miss out on federal unemployment insurance, and every working American's take-home pay will be squeezed.

Rep. Becerra recalled several recent instances when an apparent deal fell through.

"I remember when I was serving on the supercommittee how we kept on hearing the news there was a deal," he said. "I remember when I was on the Bowles-Simpson commission how we were hearing we were going to get the two-thirds vote necessary to get the deal. And I've heard we've got a deal wrapped up on this payroll tax cut conference. I've learned to wait till we see the deal to know that there's a deal."