But the House refused to vote on the compromise. Instead, it voted on a piece of parliamentary trickery devised by Speaker John Boehner and his lieutenants to ensure the tax cut couldn’t possibly pass. The measure simply sent the tax-cut issue back to a nonexistent conference committee. Unlike the bipartisan Senate vote, this one was supported only by Republicans and was designed to produce only one possible outcome.
As a result, it looks increasingly likely that the payroll tax cut will end on Jan. 1, along with extended unemployment insurance for three million jobless workers. After the vote, President Obama urged Mr. Boehner and House Republicans to put politics aside and extend the tax cut for two months while negotiators work on making it last for a full year. But he was immediately repudiated by Mr. Boehner, appearing with his caucus, who said the Senate would have to return to Washington and negotiate.
In a year full of dangerous standoffs, led by extremist House members, this one may be the most intractable.
Many House Republicans never wanted the president’s tax-cut proposal to pass, in part because it might contribute to economic growth in an election year. But they could not be seen as voting against it, so they used one of Congress’s many methods to kill a bill without appearing to have done so. Earlier in the month, they passed a one-year extension full of provisions designed to sink it, including big cuts to discretionary spending, a significant reduction to jobless benefits and utterly irrelevant provisions allowing industries to spew more pollution and forcing a decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
They wanted the Senate to vote down that bill so the House wouldn’t be blamed. Instead, the Senate approved a two-month extension, hoping to use that time to reach agreement on how to pay for the next 10 months. The blame has returned to the House side.
Assigning blame, or avoiding it, has come to replace actual governing in the Congress. If the tax cut dies, Democrats will accuse Republicans of killing it, and they will be absolutely right to do so. It might even help them regain the House next year among an electorate disgusted with partisan gridlock. But the cost to individual families and the nation is too high a price to pay.
The House may well back down; several Senate Republicans are urging them to. But if Mr. Boehner refuses to bend, as painful as it will be, Mr. Obama will have to ask the Senate in the next few days to return to Washington and negotiate with the House. It may not do any good, but there are too many paychecks at stake to give up.