- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2011

Congress closed out its legislative year on Friday the same way it began: with a divided House and Senate agreeing to a short-term extension, in this case renewing the payroll tax holiday for two more months, but leaving the bigger work for later.

The bill does force President Obama to make a final decision on permitting the Keystone XL pipeline, which he had vehemently objected to, but it delivers him a major victory by extending unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless yet again, without any of the new conditions the GOP had sought to impose.

Mr. Obama signed the bill and told reporters he still wants to see action on a yearlong tax cut and unemployment insurance, saying it “should be a formality” to get it done.

“This is some good news just in the nick of time for the holidays,” he said before jetting off to Hawaii for a vacation delayed nearly a week by the tax fight.

The cavernous House chamber and the more intimate Senate floor were nearly empty as both chambers passed the bill in pro forma sessions. If any member in either chamber had objected, the deal would have been scuttled, but nobody did.

“I hope this Congress has had a very good learning experience,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “Everything we do around here doesn’t have to end up in a fight.”

Presiding over the House session was Speaker John A. Boehner, the man who has been battered by the entire tax exchange.

Mr. Boehner initially seemed to approve the two-month deal worked out by the Senate, then after the House GOP balked he announced on Sunday the House would insist on its yearlong bill instead. But as pressure mounted, Mr. Boehner’s colleagues fled and he had no choice but to change course and concede defeat.

“Our conference told the speaker to draw a line in the sand, the speaker stood up and drew it for us, and then our conference began to desert him,” said Rep. Rob Woodall, a freshman Republican from Georgia. “Our speaker was ready to lead us, the question is, are we ready to follow.”

Mr. Woodall was one of the dozen House Republicans who opposed even the GOP’s own bill, arguing that it didn’t make budget sense to use savings over 10 years to offset a one-year or two-month tax cut — as both House and Senate bills did.

The short-term bill is the latest punt in a year full of them: Early on, Congress passed repeated stopgap spending bills as it wrestled with long-overdue 2011 funding measures. And throughout the year it has passed repeated extensions of the highway bill, small business programs and the Federal Aviation Administration.

All sides agree the two-month tax cut extension is inadequate, and all sides also said they had wanted to secure a full-year deal — but with senators already home for vacation and House Republican leaders stepping on their own messaging, the capital city declared the two-month deal a winning compromise.

The bill extends this year’s payroll tax cut through the end of February, and also continues unemployment benefits though for fewer weeks than in the past, and grants 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.

Lost revenue from the payroll tax cut is offset by a new fee on mortgages.

House Republicans had sought a yearlong extension of the payroll tax cut, extended full doctor payments for two years.

It also provided for additional unemployment benefits though only under new rules that would have allowed states to impose drug-testing and would have pushed beneficiaries to get a graduate equivalency degree. Democrats objected and those provisions are not in the two-month bill.

House Republicans tried to save face by insisting Friday’s agreement takes care of the paperwork burden a two-month extension would impose on businesses. Democrats, who won a near-complete victory in the showdown, agreed to that addition.

Caving to the Senate only seemed to heighten long-simmering House resentment against the upper chamber.

“People in Washington like to talk about not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. Today’s deal was neither perfect, nor good,” said Rep. Mike Kelly, a freshman Republican from Pennsylvania who placed blame on Mr. Reid for refusing to cancel his chamber’s vacation.

House Republicans had hoped to outlast Senate Democrats. On Tuesday they rejected the two-month solution, reaffirmed their own yearlong extension bill, and demanded negotiations to work out a final agreement.

But Mr. Reid refused to appoint negotiators from the Senate and said a short-term bill was all he would allow right now.

On Thursday, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the upper chamber, undercut his House counterparts, saying he, too, supported the short-term deal right now.

He sought to sweeten the sour sandwich by claiming victory on the Keystone XL pipeline.

Under the terms of the bill, Mr. Obama has 60 days to decide to issue a permit for the pipeline, and the only reason he can refuse is if he deems it would harm national security.

This is the third year in a row that Congress has pushed action right up until Christmas. In 2009, the Senate voted to pass its health care bill on Christmas Eve, and last year it worked up until Dec. 22 to pass a major arms reduction treaty with Russia.

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