By turning down a bill that was overwhelmingly supported by both parties in the Senate as well as the White House, the conservative House majority that has spent the year inciting combative legislative showdowns is now staring over the brink, standing fast against legislation with significant financial consequences for nearly every American household.
Over just a few hours on Tuesday, President Obama held an impromptu news conference to sharply criticize them, the House floor exploded with partisan derision and many members then headed for the airports, not knowing how or if the legislative battle would end. In a year of bitter legislative standoffs, the preholiday clash over the payroll tax was as tense as any, ripe with potential political repercussions in the first days of an election year.
Mr. Boehner of Ohio, the first-year speaker who has struggled throughout 2011 to corral his members, said House Republicans would not relent and accept a two-month extension of the tax cut that was approved by the Senate on Saturday as a way to buy time for a more permanent solution. He instead named members to a committee to negotiate a new agreement with the Senate, which adjourned Saturday.
Republicans, many of whom said just a few weeks ago that they did not want an extension of the tax cut at all, have now pivoted in the opposite direction, saying they would accept a one-year deal or nothing at all, citing the uncertainty of a stopgap plan.
Mr. Boehner called Mr. Obama to summon the Senate back to Washington to bargain with House Republicans despite the approach of the holidays. “I just think the American people expect us to do our work,” Mr. Boehner said.
But he was rebuffed by Mr. Obama, and by House and Senate Democrats, who said they would appoint no counterparts to Mr. Boehner’s newly named negotiators. And more Republican senators who voted for the Senate bill urged Mr. Boehner to get his lawmakers to do the same, saying the ugly fight was damaging both Republicans and the already badly battered Congress.
“It is harming the Republican Party,” Senator John McCain of Arizona said in an interview on CNN. “It is harming the view, if it’s possible anymore, of the American people about Congress. And we’ve got to get this thing resolved and with the realization that the payroll tax cut must remain in effect.”
If no resolution can be found, House Republicans — who have managed to escape the tag of the party that shut down government despite repeated close calls — now risk the odd political development of being accused of being the impediment to a tax cut.
“This is the walk-away caucus with the walk-away leadership that are walking away from 160 million Americans,” said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat.
The impasse deepened Tuesday with a spirited debate over the bill to reject the Senate plan and call for new negotiations, which passed 229 to 193. “The sanctimonious rhetoric you hear from Republicans is nothing but talk, baby talk,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, glowering from the House floor.
Republican members fired back, saying that the Senate should not be able to dictate legislative terms to the House. “The arrogance of this place is outstanding. It’s unbelievable,” said Representative Tom Reed, Republican of New York.
Not a single Democrat joined the House Republicans in rejecting the Senate bill on Tuesday — a rare occurrence. An hour after that vote, Mr. Obama swept unannounced into his press secretary’s daily briefing with White House reporters. He called the Senate measure — which would maintain a two-month extension of a payroll tax holiday for 160 million workers, continue unemployment benefits for millions more and maintain Medicare reimbursement fees for doctors — “the only viable way to prevent a tax hike, on Jan. 1. The only one.”
Millions of Americans, and the overall economy, would suffer without such action, he said. “The clock is ticking; time is running out,” Mr. Obama said. “And if the House Republicans refuse to vote for the Senate bill, or even allow it to come up for a vote, taxes will go up in 11 days.”
Mr. Boehner returned his own televised volley minutes later from the Capitol, where he stood with roughly 150 House Republicans to announce his appointees to a conference committee that is not likely to meet soon. His appointees — many of them vocal opponents of a payroll tax holiday in the past — are now set to pass the next days in Washington, awaiting a blink from the Democrats.
As the House took its last votes of the year on Tuesday — unless it takes up a new payroll tax measure or reconsiders the Senate plan — Mr. Hoyer and Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, sparred on the House floor, while members booed, hissed, clapped and yelped from their seats, British Parliament style.
“I think the people of this country are tired of hearing what Washington can’t do and want to see what we can do,” said Mr. Cantor, adding, “the people of this country are beginning to wonder about the body on the other side of this Capitol and are wondering what the leader over there has against the middle class of this country.” (Mr. Cantor said he preferred a yearlong bill, but, like many of his Republican colleagues, he has in the past also questioned the wisdom of reducing payroll taxes, which feed the Social Security fund.)
While Congress appeared stuck Tuesday night, there were several ways the matter could still be resolved.
Republicans could decide to accept the two-month extension as is or with additional sweeteners, like a promise that a conference committee would meet to seek a longer-term extension, but such a move would require unanimous consent from the Senate. They could add another social policy rider, as is their tendency, and the Senate could toss it off the bill later, through a procedure that has been employed in the past. Or they could do similar procedural moves with a bill to extend the benefits for a year, which has been the goal of Mr. Obama and Democrats all along.