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Boehner's 2012 Challenges Highlighted By Payroll Tax Misstep

House Speaker John Boehner announces a payroll tax cut extension agreement, December 22, 2011.
Evan Vucci
House Speaker John Boehner announces a payroll tax cut extension agreement, December 22, 2011.

When the histories of the current 112th Congress are finally written, maybe it all will become clear.

But for right now, there seem to be many more questions than answers.

For instance, why did House Republicans ever think it was a good idea to stake out a position on the payroll-tax issue that would leave them holding the bag for a new year's tax increase for 160 million workers? That has now been averted with Congress' passage Friday morning of a two-month extension of the current payroll-tax holiday.

Also, how is it that Speaker John Boehner didn't force his freshmen to bend to political reality last weekend after the Senate overwhelmingly approved the extension, a deal that President Obama and Senate leaders had the impression Boehner initially supported? That would have spared himself and his party significant political damage.

Instead, he allowed the freshmen and other hardliners to steer from the back, like those old fire department tiller trucks. Those trucks were prone to rollovers when the rear driver made a steering mistake. And the House GOP arguably found itself off its wheels, too.

And how credible will Boehner be in future negotiations with President Obama and Democrats especially if, when he takes a particularly hardline stance, they can accuse him of once again being led by his freshmen to the brink of political disaster and say they will wait until he comes around?

That last question is the one with the most immediate implications. The two-month extension means Congress and Obama will need to negotiate a longer-term deal to continue past February the tax holiday and other policies like federal unemployment insurance benefits and continued higher payments to doctors who accept Medicare patients.

Boehner's position going into those negotiations has arguably been weakened after he and his House GOP were forced to back down from their position that they would not agree to a two-month extension.

That doesn't mean the House Republicans can't regain their footing. But they're definitely on wobbly legs right now.

And Boehner's negotiating challenge will be tough. To get to a year-long deal, he and Obama will need to agree on how to pay for the longer tax holiday.

Republicans had demanded higher Medicare premiums for Americans with higher household incomes and a pay freeze for federal workers. Democrats argued for tax increases on the very wealthy and the closing of corporate tax loopholes.

The mishandling of the payroll tax fight only played into the hands of critics of Boehner and his fellow Republicans that the GOP is more concerned about the wealthy than the middle class.

If Boehner and the GOP demand more sacrifice from middle class and lower income Americans in exchange for a one-year payroll tax cut extension, that would just make it easier for Democrats to make their populist arguments.

Meanwhile, Boehner clearly has the challenge of deciding how to handle his House GOP conference going forward. If he allows the freshmen to keep steering, House Republicans could find themselves upended again.

But preventing the kind of trouble House Republicans found themselves in this week could mean Boehner would need to run a far more top-down conference than he's so far been willing to do.

Carrie Budoff Brown and Jonathan Allen of Politico.com report that when Boehner talked to his conference members on Thursday, he did all the talking, telling them a deal had been reached and that was that.

"This time there was no discussion. This time, House Speaker John Boehner didn't take the chance of losing another deal to a caucus with a tendency to self-immolate.

"And so when Boehner delivered the news that he had struck a deal on a Thursday afternoon conference call with House Republicans, the technology was in place to prevent rank-and-file lawmakers from voicing the kind of angry dissent that scuttled a Senate-passed payroll bill on Saturday. The five day drama that exposed both the political naivete of the freshman-heavy Republican Conference and the sharp limits of Boehner's power over them ended in silence."

Obviously, this approach could invite a challenge to his leadership.

But in the end, Boehner could decide that exerting more up front control over his conference will be worth the intramural trouble that could cause if it avoids the sort of damaging spectacle that occurred the week before Christmas 2011.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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