Partisan acrimony looms over talks on payroll-tax cut

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Congress will begin its work in 2012 right where it left off in 2011 — locked in a partisan, bicameral struggle to hammer out an extension of the expiring payroll-tax holiday.

Most lawmakers won’t return to Capitol Hill until later this month. But House Democrats and Republicans already are setting an acrimonious tone that suggests reaching a deal won’t be any easier than in December, when Congress agreed to a two-month extension of the tax break.

“I don’t think that it is going to go smoothly,” said Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, minutes after he took to the House floor Tuesday to demand payroll-tax cut negotiations begin immediately. Rep. Robert B . Aderholt, Alabama Republican, who was serving as speaker pro tempore, refused to allow Mr. Moran to speak and gaveled the session closed after about two minutes.

“I’m afraid it’s going to go down to the wire, and that it’s going to reach an unsatisfactory conclusion,” added Mr. Moran. “And it’s designed [by House Republicans] to achieve that result, apparently.”

Congress closed out its 2011 legislative calendar Dec. 23 after House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, caved 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.

House Democrats said repeated requests for the Republican conferees to return to Washington to begin talks on extending the tax-cut extension to 160 million American wage earners, which expires after Feb. 29, have fallen on deaf ears.

“The clock is ticking on this urgent priority,” said the five House Democrats appointed to the 20-member conference committee in a letter sent Monday to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan, a senior Republican member of the panel. “The last thing the American people, or the American economy, needs is another unnecessary and avoidable crisis like those we faced repeatedly in 2011.”

Mr. Camp is in Latin America this week with a House delegation led by Mr. Boehner.

But House Republicans say the Democrats’ push for urgency is disingenuous and nothing more than political grandstanding.

“Perhaps some of that energy would be better used to ask [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] to return the Senate sooner so that all conferees can formally meet,” said a senior House Republican aide.

The Senate isn’t scheduled to return to work until Jan. 23.

While the House won’t begin its 2012 session until Tuesday, House GOP staffers already have been busy preparing data and preliminary reports for the conferees, the GOP aide said.

“There is actually quite a bit of work going on,” the aide said. “This is sort of typical of what happens with a conference committee in that a lot of work is done at the staff level.”

House Republican conferees also spoke together via a conference call Friday to discuss the upcoming payroll-tax conference committee meetings.

“All members are anxious to begin formal, bipartisan, bicameral meetings,” said Camp spokeswoman Michelle Dimarob, who added House Republicans have been working continuously on the matter since last year.

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