Minnesota House members bemoan payroll tax standoff

WASHINGTON – As the U.S. House debated a measure to reject a Senate bill to extend the payroll tax cut for two months, members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation bemoaned the partisan stalemate while sticking closely to their parties’ rapidly-shifting talking points.

House Republicans said they opposed the Senate bill because it covers only two months, not the entire year.

“This is part of Congress’s problem, I think why there’s low approval ratings,” GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen. “There’s always short-term fixes, short-term patches versus long-term solutions and so I think it’s just really important to get it right.”

Democrats counter that they would have been happy to have a year-long extension but the issue that stymied talks in the Senate was how to pay for the estimated $200 billion cost of the bill, which includes the tax extension, the Medicare “doc fix”, extended unemployment benefits and several smaller tax breaks. The two month extension punted on most of the so-called pay-fors, which made it possible for the measure to draw aye votes from 39 of the Senate’s 47 Republicans and almost all Democrats.

Noting the Senate’s inability to pass legislation this Congress, DFL Rep. Tim Walz said the Senate’s bipartisan vote for the payroll tax extension is a sign of how non-controversial this measure should be.

“Ninety percent of the United States Senate, they couldn’t agree that today’s the 20th [of December] and they did it!” said Walz.

In past years, Walz said bills such as these “would have just been agreed up to go two months because that’s the compromise to make government work.”

Last week, Walz was one of just 10 Democrats to cross party lines and vote for the House Republican tax extension bill even though it contained some policy provisions he found objectionable.

“I just want to get it done,” said Walz. “I already compromised and took a lot of heat, to be very honest with you, from folks on the left side but that’s my job to try and get something done, I was willing to do that.”

The Senate’s decision to go on recess has provided House Republicans with some rhetorical fodder to complain that that the upper chamber left town to avoid to further negotiations with the House.

“We want to force that discussion right now and get the resolution right now,” said Republican Rep. John Kline.

He promised that Republicans would be happy to keep the south wing of the Capitol open the week between Christmas and New Years even if the Senate didn’t plan to return.

“If we leave, we’ll be leaving with a ticket to come back. Our expectation is we’ll be back here,” said Kline.

Republicans have been lukewarm about extending the payroll tax cut since the summer. Paulsen told MPR News then that he was “hesitant” to support renewing the tax cut because “I’m not convinced it’s going to result in meaningful employment for folks.”

Now he argues a year-long extension is needed to provide “certainty” for taxpayers and employers as they make financial decisions in 2012.

Extending the tax cut became a cornerstone of the jobs plan rolled out by President Obama in September. He offered to pay for that plan in part by raising taxes on the wealthy, a non-starter for Republicans. Still, linking the two issues provided Obama and congressional Democrats with a powerful rhetorical weapon that enabled them to say that Republicans were more interested in protecting the rich rather than the middle-class, who are the predominate beneficiaries of the payroll tax cut.

That messaging campaign rattled Republicans. Paulsen conceded that without Obama’s push for the issue, he wouldn’t be backing any payroll tax cut extension.

“This is the President’s marquee issue, I get that,” Paulsen said. “Presidents get a lot of what they want and he wants to have it longer than two months and so I just think we should move forward and have it done for the long term at least.”

Amidst the overheated language and ferocious debates over the past two weeks, DFL Rep. Collin Peterson, the longest-serving member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, has watched quietly.

“It just seems like whatever anybody tries to do, somebody’s got to pick a fight,” said Peterson.

While the 10-term veteran sometimes crosses party lines to vote with Republicans, on this issue he hasn’t broken ranks even though he’s uncomfortable with the fiscal implications of the payroll tax extension, which will require Social Security benefits be paid for from general government revenues.

“If we actually want to get this deficit under control, the best thing we can do is just let all this stuff expire,” Peterson said.