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Political dispute creates GOP split between House and Senate

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 8:12 PM EST, Tue December 20, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • House Republicans criticize Senate payroll tax plan negotiated by GOP leaders
  • Some senators call on the GOP-led House to pass the Senate proposal
  • Gergen: Republicans have been outmaneuvered
  • Sen. McCain says the impasse is hurting the Republican Party

Washington (CNN) -- At the end of another long and confusing day of political wrangling over extending the payroll tax cut, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asked a question on everybody's mind.

"The public has to be concerned and wondering why on Earth are we not getting a payroll tax cut when everybody says they're for it?" Pelosi, D-California, said at a news conference Tuesday.

The answer involves the usual suspects of partisan divide in Congress and the politics of a coming election year.

This time, though, there is another factor: disarray among congressional Republicans that has led to a public rift between GOP members of the House and Senate.

On Tuesday, House Republicans pushed their call for further negotiations on a one-year extension of the payroll tax cut. They ridiculed a Senate plan for a two-month extension as irresponsible and unworkable, saying it would create uncertainty by failing to resolve the issue past February.

However, the Senate agreement was negotiated by Democratic and Republican leaders and received strong GOP support in passing on an 89-10 vote.

In effect, the criticism by House Republicans was directed at their Senate party brethren as well as Democrats, adding another twist to the reasons for the impasse.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, spoke with disdain on the House floor Tuesday about what he repeatedly referred to the "wisdom of the Senate" and asked his House colleagues to "look what the Senate did," calling the two-month extension plan "really irresponsible on all levels."

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also took issue with the Senate plan, saying he had asked Senate leaders to send the House a proposal but when it arrived, "the House disagreed with it."

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Boehner's problem is that he initially urged his House colleagues to back the Senate measure, according to a GOP source who spoke of what happened in a conference call of the Republican House caucus Saturday.

While Boehner referred to the Senate measure approved that day as the best deal the House would get, his top deputy -- House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia -- opposed it and urged the caucus to reject it, the source said.

Boehner disputed that characterization of the caucus meeting, saying Tuesday he let Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell know of his disapproval of a short-term extension as the Senate negotiation approached finality.

"I expressed my displeasure in once again taking the convenient route and not doing the people's work," said Boehner, who now leads the House Republican opposition to the Senate plan.

Democrats have seized on the Republican disunity, noting that GOP leaders have blocked votes in both the House and Senate on payroll tax proposals backed by their party.

"If we do not have a payroll tax cut, it's because the Republicans in the House of Representatives have chosen to paint themselves in a different place than Republicans in the country and Republicans in the United States Senate," Pelosi noted Tuesday.

While House Republicans say they support a one-year extension of the payroll tax cut, the fact that they refuse to pass the Senate measure that would provide a two-month extension and more time to negotiate shows they have a different agenda, she said.

'Whatever they say is irrelevant," Pelosi said of House Republicans. "What they do is what's important, and what they're doing is not giving a payroll tax cut to 160 million Americans."

President Barack Obama joined the Democratic chorus, noting that Senate leaders from both parties had agreed to the short-term extension in order to guarantee that taxes don't increase for working Americans while negotiations continue early next year on the one-year extension that House Republicans say they support.

"What they're really holding out for is to wring concessions from Democrats on issues that have nothing to do with the payroll tax cut," Obama said of House Republicans.

Another problem for Republicans is that they have blocked votes in both chambers on payroll tax-cut proposals they crafted or endorsed.

House Republicans pushed through a bill extending the lower rate enacted last year through 2012, but tacked on other provisions opposed by Democrats and some GOP senators.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, was against holding a Senate vote on the House plan, apparently because he knew it would fail.

On Monday night, House Republican leaders ruled out a direct up-and-down vote on the Senate's two-month extension of the payroll tax cut.

Instead, the House on Tuesday passed a procedural resolution that expressed disagreement with the Senate plan and called for a conference committee made up of members of both chambers to negotiate a compromise.

Obama and House Democrats called for a direct vote on the Senate plan, with Pelosi saying the refusal by GOP leaders to bring it up showed they feared enough Republican members would join the Democratic minority to pass it.

To CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen, Republicans have been "outmaneuvered" on the issue.

Obama and the Democrats have "put the Republicans in the House into a position where they look like they are clearly obstructing," Gergen said.

The unresolved dispute continued to pit Republican versus Republican on Tuesday.

Five mostly moderate Republican senators have called for the House to support the Senate's two-month extension. One of them, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, issued a statement after Tuesday's House vote that said House Republicans "would rather continue playing politics than find solutions."

"Their actions will hurt American families and be detrimental to our fragile economy," said Brown, who is facing a stiff re-election challenge in heavily Democratic Massachusetts next year. "We are Americans first; now is not the time for drawing lines in the sand."

Veteran Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who voted for the Senate's proposal, told CNN that the reality of the issue is that the payroll tax cut must be extended to help out Americans still struggling in the economic recovery.

"It is harming the Republican Party," McCain said of the continuing impasse. "It is harming the view, if it's possible any more, of the American people about Congress."

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