- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2011

House Democrats tried Wednesday to force a vote on the Senate’s two-month extension of the payroll-tax cut, but Republicans gaveled the House closed to prevent them from having a chance, as top GOP leaders huddled down the hall to try to figure a way out of the impasse.

There was no resolution in sight, even after President Obama made midday phone calls to House Speaker John A. Boehner and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seeking a compromise. The depth of the divide was on display on Capitol Hill earlier in the day, when the House was set to hold a pro forma session.

Two top Democrats, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen, demanded to be recognized to try to force a vote on the two-month extension. House Republicans have blocked that deal, which is strongly backed by Mr. Obama, and are holding out for an extension that covers all of 2012.

Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican who was serving as the presiding officer, abruptly banged his gavel to close the session Wednesday morning even as the two Democrats were demanding to be recognized.

“You’re walking out, you’re walking away, just as so many Republicans have walked away from middle-class taxpayers,” Mr. Hoyer shouted after Mr. Fitzpatrick as he marched off the floor, leaving the two Democrats, both from Maryland, by themselves in the cavernous chamber.

Down the hall, in his office, Mr. Boehner gathered top Republicans to try to figure out a path forward.

“We’re here. We’re ready to work,” Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, told reporters before that meeting. “We’re looking for our counterparts to sit down with us so that we can do what the president, bipartisan leaders in the House and Senate all want, and that’s to extend the payroll-tax cut for one year.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Boehner and his troops voted to go into negotiations with the Senate over the payroll tax, but Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he won’t enter negotiations until the House first passes a short-term measure to give all sides more time to talk.

Last week, the House passed a bill to extend this year’s 2-percentage-point payroll-tax holiday through all of 2012, to extend but overhaul unemployment benefits and to extend full payments to Medicare doctors by two years.

Senators couldn’t reach a similar long-term agreement, so on Saturday, they passed a two-month extension of those provisions, though they cut out the new unemployment benefit changes that would have let states conduct drug testing and would have required the unemployed to have a high school diploma or GED certificate or be working toward one.

That Senate bill passed 89-10, but on Sunday, Mr. Boehner said it wasn’t enough and said the House would insist on negotiations to work out a final agreement between the House and Senate.

In his phone calls, the president congratulated Mr. Reid on the Senate’s short-term extension and urged Mr. Boehner to drop his insistence on a yearlong one.

But Mr. Boehner’s office said the speaker reminded the president that he, too, wanted a yearlong extension and urged Mr. Obama instead to put pressure on Senate Democrats to negotiate.

Mr. Reid has said he won’t negotiate with the Jan. 1 deadline still hanging over them, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said she won’t name negotiators to the House-Senate conference to hammer out final details, arguing that the only solution is to pass the Senate’s legislation. Mr. Obama on Tuesday also publicly pressed the House to act on the two-month extension.

On the House floor Wednesday, Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Van Hollen tried to bring up a new version of the Senate’s two-month bill.

After they were denied recognition, they stood in the empty chamber for 20 more minutes, delivering floor speeches to each other about the tax cut. Meanwhile, on the dais, House floor staffers were cleaning up and deserting the chamber, leaving it to the congressmen and their staffers.

If the payroll tax cut expires, it will affect 160 million workers and average nearly $1,000 in higher taxes for them next year.

“The Republicans have taken hostage these 160 million people,” Mr. Hoyer said at a news conference after his floor maneuvers.

The House is scheduled to hold pro forma sessions twice a week for the rest of the year, and Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Van Hollen promised to be back to make their request again.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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