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GOP lawmakers return to a House divided
Frustration over payroll-tax cut debacle lingers
When last seen in Washington, House Republicans were furious with their own leader, Speaker John A. Boehner, and angry with their SenateGOP brethren over how the showdown over the Social Security tax cut turned into a year-end political debacle.
The holidays and three weeks away from the Capitol have tempered some of the bad feelings, but several Republican lawmakers are still smarting as Congress returns for a 2012 session certain to be driven by election-year politics and fierce fights over the size and scope of government and its taxing, spending and borrowing practices.
In the week before Christmas, House Republicans revolted against the Senate-passed deal to extend the payroll-tax cut for two months for 160 million workers and ensure jobless benefits for millions more long-term unemployed. Facing intense political pressure, Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, conceded, daring tea party activists and other dissenters in his ranks to challenge his decision to pass the short-term plan without a roll-call vote. None did.
“A lot of us who went into battle turned around and no one was behind us,” freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney, South Carolina Republican, said last week, sounding like the fight was still fresh and insistent that leadership had abandoned them.
The two-month extension that Senate Republican and Democratic leaders had characterized as a draw ended up as a big public relations victory for President Obama at the end of a year in which Republicans had forced him to accept a series of spending cuts.
Grievances are certain to be aired at a House GOP retreat in Baltimore later this week. The strategy and agenda get-together also will be a gripe session for some of the 242 House Republicans.
“It might be a little more spunky than normal,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican.
Senators come back to Capitol Hill on Jan. 23.
In the coming year, House Republicans remain doubtful about accomplishing anything more than the must-do spending bills and a yearlong extension of the Social Security tax cuts, unemployment benefits and a reprieve in the cuts to doctors for Medicare payments. Congress faces a Feb. 29 deadline to agree on a new extension, no easy task after last year’s deep divisions but politically inevitable as lawmakers would be loath to raise taxes in an election year.
Uncertain is the fate of a highway bill and reauthorization of a farm bill, legislation that could mean jobs in a struggling economy but measures also likely to get caught up in the partisan fight over how to pay for the programs.
Republicans are pinning their hopes on November’s elections and the tantalizing possibility that the GOP holds the House, wins four or more of the Senate seats needed to seize control, and the party’s nominee ousts Mr. Obama. Controlling both the presidency and Congress would be a mandate for significant change, many are hoping.
In the meantime, Republicans are gearing up for Obama campaign attacks on a “do-nothing Congress,” ready to counter that many of their bills went nowhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Top on the list: The House completed a budget last year and the Senate did not.
Adding to the uncertainty in a volatile election year are the dozen or so House Republicans whose tea party purity about reducing the government’s reach often outweighs re-election concerns, making other Republicans nervous as the party looks to hold on to its 50-seat edge.
Some have dubbed the tea partyers the “Braveheart caucus” for their affection for the 1995 Mel Gibson movie about William Wallace, who led the fight for Scotland’s independence. Wallace was hanged and quartered.
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