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GOP Walks Away From Payroll Tax Debacle Bruised


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Obama is in Hawaii with his family today. Yesterday, just before leaving Washington, D.C., he signed a bill to extend the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits for two months. It was a political victory for the president and for Democrats who had made extending the tax break a priority.

For Republicans in the House of Representatives though, it may have marked a political defeat. NPR's congressional correspondent reporter, Tamara Keith, has more.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: After weeks of sniping, the House and Senate yesterday passed a bill to temporarily extend the tax holiday and jobless benefits in a matter of seconds.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Without objection, the bill is engrossed, read for a third time and passed and the motion reconsider is laid on the table.

KEITH: But getting to that moment of unanimous consent required Speaker John Boehner to exert his will on a House Republican caucus that was deeply ambivalent about extending the payroll tax cut in the first place, and on Tuesday, almost universally rejected a nearly identical two-month extension.

BOEHNER: We opposed that bill because the two-month extension will create more uncertainty for job creators in our country when millions of Americans are out of work.

KEITH: That was Boehner at a press conference on Tuesday after the vote. He was surrounded by at least a hundred House Republicans who cheered when he wrapped up.


KEITH: This was political stagecraft, signaling the House GOP stood together and stood behind their speaker who had dealt with the Senate compromise bill just the way they wanted. Three days later, the scene was dramatically different. On Friday, Boehner walked out of the House chamber alone, no press conference, no throng of supportive House members cheering him on. A few minutes later, Democrat John Dingell from Michigan said he hopes this meant House Republicans had learned to be more bipartisan.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN DINGELL: I'm hoping that they'll also learn to follow their leader, Mr. Boehner, who established the beginnings of some good working relationships with what he did in going on with this.

KEITH: It's not clear whether Dingell will get his wish. Some House Republicans have put out statements critical of Boehner's decision. Thursday, after making a deal with Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Boehner held a conference call with his caucus, but it was a one-way conversation. He didn't take any feedback, and that was a shift for the speaker who often operates based on consensus.

BOEHNER: I have no fear in allowing the House to works its will.

KEITH: That was Boehner in September after a bill he backed failed unexpectedly, one of the side effects of letting the House work its will.

BOEHNER: Does it make my life a little more difficult? Yes, it does. But at the end of the day, every member has an obligation to represent their constituents. I'm going to respect that right of our members to do that.

KEITH: That's what happened a week ago when Boehner presented his members with options and they overwhelmingly said they wanted to reject the bipartisan Senate compromise. One conservative columnist described the move as kamikaze politics. It seems some members didn't care. Tom Reed from New York was part of the huge class of freshman swept in a year ago.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM REED: I don't care about political implications. I said it once on the floor, I said it to the public, I'll say it again. I don't care about my reelection effort. I came here to do what's right for America.

KEITH: Throughout the payroll tax debate, it was clear many of Boehner's members simply didn't support extending the tax break. Jeff Flake of Arizona was among the more vocal.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF FLAKE: I would to see it unravel completely. It was a mistake to do a year ago. We're compounding that mistake today, so we shouldn't be doing it.

KEITH: On Thursday, after Boehner told his members about the deal, he admitted the weeklong standoff may not have been the politically smartest thing.

BOEHNER: We've got a lot of members with a lot of opinions. We've been - we have fought the fight - the good fight.

KEITH: If he had any regrets about letting his members opinions rule the week, then he didn't let on. House and Senate negotiators will begin working on a yearlong compromise after the holidays. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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