Tax bill set for increasingly rare conference committee

Bipartisan talks used to be standard practice

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Last week’s tax fight in Congress was about many things — Social Security taxes, unemployment benefits and an oil pipeline — but House Republicans tried to make it into an even bigger fight over the institutional relevance of the House of Representatives itself.

In the end, they won a partial victory. House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, caved in to Senate demands and approved the upper chamber’s two-month tax-cut bill. In exchange, the Senate agreed to name negotiators for a conference committee to hash out a longer-term solution.

It will be the fifth bill to be sent through the conference committee this Congress, putting lawmakers on pace for the worst performance in modern history and underscoring how much has changed in Washington, where conference committees used to be standard.

Like most of the other major deals struck over the past decade, the two-month tax-cut agreement was written by the Senate — in this case by Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Mr. Boehner initially blessed the deal, but his caucus argued that a two-month cut was bad policy and demanded that the House have a role in writing the final deal.

Senator Reid is not king. He can’t tell us what to do here,” House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, California Republican, said as his committee wrote the floor procedures that sought to force a conference committee.

Mr. Reid, though, refused to enter into negotiations until the House took away the end-of-year deadline for the tax cut’s expiration.

“Once the House passes the Senate’s bipartisan compromise to hold middle-class families harmless while we work out our differences, I will be happy to restart the negotiating process to forge a yearlong extension,” Mr. Reid said as the brinkmanship intensified.

When Mr. McConnell, the top Senate Republican, announced he was backing Mr. Reid, the House GOP blinked.

Now, with the immediate fight over, both sides are preparing for the conference, which will have to reach an agreement by the end of February if it is to prevent the payroll tax from rising again.

Mr. Reid announced Friday the members he would appoint to the conference committee and told reporters that they would be free to open any discussion, including raising taxes on millionaires, which Democrats tried but dismissed as they negotiated throughout December.

“I have instructed, in my telephone calls with my four senators, there is nothing off the table. Everything’s on the table,” Mr. Reid said.

Mr. Reid was able to fend off the House because both chambers must agree on conference committees and then must appoint negotiators. They are supposed to hold at least one public meeting to air out the issues, and majorities of each chamber’s negotiators must approve of a deal for it to be submitted to the House and Senate for votes.

The concept has grown rusty, though.

Along with the latest bill, four others from each chamber have been sent to conference this year. The 97th Congress in 1981 and 1982 sent 94 bills to conference, and the 102nd Congress 20 years ago sent 90 into negotiations.

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