- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2011

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiations over a bill extending a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits can begin as soon the Senate rejects a version the House approved despite a White House veto threat, the Senate’s top Democrat said Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants his chamber to vote quickly on the House payroll tax bill, which includes Democratic-opposed spending cuts and language speeding work on an oil pipeline, to demonstrate how little support it has in the Senate. That could strengthen his hand in talks with House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio Republican, over a compromise.

“The sooner we put this useless partisan charade behind us, the sooner we can negotiate a true bipartisan solution that protects middle-class workers” from a payroll tax increase, said Reid, Nevada Democrat.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, his opposite number, refused Wednesday to let the chamber vote quickly on the House measure. The Kentucky Republican said the Senate should first vote on legislation financing the federal government, because a temporary bill keeping agencies open expires on Saturday, threatening a government shutdown.

“We ought to finish our most immediate concern first,” McConnell said, adding that Reid should start negotiating with Boehner on the payroll tax bill immediately.

Reid would not allow a vote on the spending bill. Democrats worry that if Congress passes that measure first, it would ease pressure on Republicans to reach compromise on the payroll tax legislation.

The House payroll tax measure would keep 160 million workers from seeing their payroll tax jump on Jan. 1 from this year’s 4.2 percent back to its normal level of 6.2 percent — a $1,000 difference for a family making $50,000.

It would also renew expiring extra benefits for long-term jobless people and head off a cut in doctors’ Medicare reimbursements, a reduction that could prompt some to stop seeing elderly patients who use that program.

But it has drawn nearly universal Democratic opposition because it would also force work to begin on the 1,700-mile-long Keystone XL oil pipeline, which President Barack Obama would rather postpone. It would also trim federal spending without forcing the wealthy to contribute as much as Democrats want.

Boehner taunted Senate Democrats Tuesday after the House passed its legislation.

“The Senate can take up our bill, they can pass it, they can amend it, they can move their own bill,” he told reporters, standing beside a video clock counting down the seconds until the payroll tax boost that would otherwise occur Jan. 1. “But it is time for the Senate to act. Democrats who run the United States Senate can’t continue to hide and sit on the sidelines.”

Boehner also said that when the Senate acts, “we’ll begin to then take a look at where we can find common ground.”

The payroll measure isn’t the only one lawmakers plan to tackle before beginning their year-end vacation, presumably before Christmas.

Bipartisan lawmakers have reached agreement on a $1 trillion measure financing scores of government agencies through next September, a bill that would avert a federal shutdown this weekend when temporary funding expires.

Democrats, though, are refusing to let the legislation move through Congress until the two parties broker a deal on the payroll tax measure. Democrats hope that will build pressure on Republicans to quickly reach agreement on the payroll tax bill, a tactic Boehner called “outrageous.”

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