WASHINGTON - A day after the Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation to extend a payroll-tax cut for two months, House Republicans made clear Sunday that they would not support the measure.
Speaker John Boehner, who had urged his members Saturday to support the legislation, did what appeared to be an about-face Sunday when he said he and other House Republicans were opposed to the temporary extension, part of a $33 billion package of bills that the Senate passed Saturday. In addition to extending the payroll-tax cut for millions of U.S. workers, the legislation extended unemployment benefits and avoided cuts in payments to doctors who accept Medicare. The measure would be effective through February.
In an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press," Boehner said the two-month extension would be "just kicking the can down the road."
"It's time to just stop, do our work, resolve the differences and extend this for one year," Boehner said. "How can you have tax policy for two months?"
He said Republicans wanted to extend the payroll cut for a year but that it would have to be financed with cuts in the existing budget. When congressional aides announced the deal on Friday, they said the items it contained were fully paid for.
But any thought that Congress will agree on a yearlong tax-cut extension or on the other provisions is extremely optimistic, given that its work will overlap with President Obama's State of the Union speech, the heat of the Republican primaries and a presidential campaign hitting full stride. Obama and Senate Democrats criticized Boehner's stance on the payroll-tax cut, saying he was renouncing the package negotiated last week by House and Senate leaders.
"The bipartisan compromise passed in the Senate yesterday received 89 votes, including 39 Republican votes, and Speaker Boehner himself just yesterday called it a 'good deal' and a 'victory,'" White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement.
"If House Republicans refuse to pass this bipartisan bill to extend the payroll-tax cut," Pfeiffer said, "there will be a significant tax increase on 160 million hard-working Americans in 13 days that would damage the economy and job growth."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Boehner had asked him and the minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to work out a compromise on the tax cut and that it had been agreed to by both political parties.
"Neither side got everything they wanted, but we forged a middle ground that passed the Senate by an overwhelming bipartisan majority," Reid said in a statement. "If Speaker Boehner refuses to vote on the bipartisan compromise that passed the Senate with 89 votes, Republicans will be forcing a thousand-dollar tax increase on middle-class families on Jan. 1."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Boehner's comments called into question his ability to lead. "This is a test of whether the House Republicans are fit to govern, and it is a make-or-break moment for John Boehner's speakership," he said in a statement. "You cannot let a small group at the extreme resort to brinksmanship every time there is a major national issue and try to dictate every move this nation makes."
Boehner's remarks on "Meet the Press" came less than 24 hours after a conference call in which, several participants said, he tried to sell the package of bills to his members, pointing to a provision that would speed Republican-supported construction of an oil pipeline, known as Keystone XL, from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Many Republican lawmakers were not happy with the legislation, chiefly because they objected to the tax cut extension's cost.
Among them was the House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. A statement issued Sunday by Cantor's office said that on Monday, the House either would amend the Senate bill so that it met the "needs of hard-working taxpayers and middle-class families," or pass a motion to move the measure to a conference committee to accomplish the same goal.
Cantor said the House opposed the Senate bill "because -- to put it simply -- we owe the middle class, employers and doctors better than a two-month extension."
Boehner's decision to back away from a deal on the payroll-tax cut was similar to his actions during debt-reduction talks with Obama in July. After it appeared that both sides had agreed to a deal that would cut spending but raise taxes on the wealthy, Boehner pulled out of talks when it became clear that the more conservative members of his rank and file would not agree to the tax increase.
"We are witnessing a pattern of Speaker Boehner walking away from bipartisan compromises to kowtow to his extreme Tea Party wing of his caucus," Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in a statement.