- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A new congressional committee set up to hammer out an extension of the payroll-tax cut met publicly for the first time Tuesday, setting aside the partisan rancor that gripped similar talks late last year and expressing optimism for a bipartisan deal.

But with the current two-month stopgap deal expiring after Feb. 29, the 20-member bipartisan panel of lawmakers from both houses of Congress has little time to waste.

“Our time is very short, our task is very large,” said Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican and the panel’s chairman. “We have a big job to do, and it’s one that the American people expect us to get done.”

The main sticking point is how to pay for the 2-percentage-point cut in Social Security payroll taxes. The tax cut allows a worker earning $50,000 to keep about an extra $20 a week.

The payroll-tax cut initially was set up at the end of 2010 as a one-year deal. Lawmakers worked to extend the tax break for another year during the closing weeks of 2011 but couldn’t agree how to pay for it.

Congress closed out its 2011 legislative calendar two days before Christmas after House Republicans reluctantly agreed to Senate demands for a two-month payroll-tax-cut bill. In exchange, the Senate agreed to name negotiators for a conference committee to hash out a longer-term solution.

The pending tax-cut package likely would include a provision to extend employment benefits for the long-term jobless yet again, as well as grant full payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients. Under the terms of a 1997 budget deal, those doctor payments were scheduled to be cut 27 percent

Tuesday’s meeting - little more than a meet-and-greet session - featured a consensus to extend the payroll-tax break that 160 million American wage earners enjoy for at least the rest of the year.

“Continuing the payroll-tax cut and unemployment insurance comes down to a basic question of fairness to the middle class,” said Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat. “The middle class has felt the brunt of this economic downturn while many corporations and the wealthiest Americans have been able to take advantage of loopholes.”

But many options are on the table, such as possibly extending the tax break for an additional year, how long to extend the unemployment-benefits package and whether to reform jobless-worker programs.

Mr. Camp scheduled another public meeting for Feb. 1, challenging committee members to “be prepared to explore in greater depth some of the specific polices that have been raised today.”

“I certainly appreciate the tone and sincerity of everyone’s remarks,” the Michigan Republican said.

Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said he was “very impressed with the general unanimity” of the panel.

“There’s not a lot here that we disagree on,” he said. “The proof’s in the pudding. Let’s see what we can do.”

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