WASHINGTON – In a surprise visit to the White House briefing room to demand House Republicans compromise on a two-month payroll tax cut extension -- a demand that was promptly rejected -- President Obama said Tuesday that the Senate legislation "is the only viable way to prevent a tax hike on January 1st."
"It's the only one," Obama said shortly after the House voted to effectively reject a Senate measure to extend the payroll tax cut for two months.
Speaking minutes later at a press conference with dozens of GOP members behind him, House Speaker John Boehner said the House has already taken up the Senate bill, which only gives a $166 tax break to Americans, and opted instead for a bill that gives $1,000 to contributors to the Social Security fund.
"We rejected the Senate bill and we moved to go to conference," he said. "We've done our work for the American people, now it's up to the president and the Senate to do their work as well."
House Republicans are insisting on a year-long extension of the break and want to force the Senate to return to Washington to hammer out a compromise. The House voted 229-193 on partisan lines to call for a meeting of lawmakers to blend the House version of the bill with a Senate bill that passed 89-10 on Saturday.
In a letter to Obama sent as the House was preparing to vote, Boehner wrote that the House version is exactly what the president had requested -- a year-long payroll tax holiday as well as an extension of unemployment insurance for a year and a "doctor fix" that would prevent doctors paid by Medicare from losing 27 percent of their payments.
"You have said that providing Americans anything less than a full year of tax relief and UI benefits would be inexcusable. We agree," he wrote, adding that with 11 days left in the year, there's plenty of time to get the conference done even if it means working through the holidays.
"I ask you to call on the Senate to return to appoint negotiators so that we can provide the American people the economic certainty they need," he said.
But Obama said a "faction" of Republicans in the House "are refusing to even vote on a Senate bill," and their refusal means 160 million "Americans could face a tax hike in just 11 days."
"I'm calling on the speaker to bring up the Senate bill for a vote," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he won't renew bargaining until the House approves the Senate's short-term measure, and senators have already returned home for the holiday break.
After the vote, Reid called the ploy "unconscionable," saying Boehner is blocking a bipartisan compromise negotiated between Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"First, Senator McConnell would not let the Senate vote on the House's payroll tax cut bill because he knew it would fail, now Speaker Boehner won't let the House hold an up-or-down vote on the Senate's bipartisan compromise because he knows it would pass," Reid said.
"I have been trying to negotiate a yearlong extension with Republicans for weeks, and I am happy to continue doing so as soon as the House of Representatives passes the bipartisan compromise to protect middle-class families, but not before then.”
Without an agreement, payroll taxes paid by 160 million workers and jobless benefits that support millions of the long-term unemployed will expire Jan. 1. With their holiday recess being shortened each day the battle rages, each side blamed the other for the impasse.
"If you say you want to do this for a year, put your vote where your rhetoric is," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, a member of the House GOP leadership. "If you're not willing to work over the holidays, admit to the American people that you're not willing to work over the holidays."
"Show us that you can govern," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "This is time for an adult moment. It's time to show your tea party wing that the American people come first."
Seven House Republicans voted against the strategic move, with Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona saying he would like to see the cut "unravel" more because it was a mistake to cut Social Security taxes without reforming the system.
Other Republicans voting no were Reps. Frank Wolf of Virginia, Chris Gibson of Ohio, Timothy Johnson of Illinois, Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, Walter Jones of North Carolina and Jamie Herrera Beutler of Washington.
After the president spoke, Boehner then released the names of eight members of his caucus to attend the conference.