Published December 22, 2011
With lawmakers locked in a dispute over how to extend the payroll tax cut, President Obama climbed the bully pulpit Thursday in a bid to pressure and isolate Republicans by casting their behavior as a classic example of Washington dysfunction.
"This is it. This is exactly why people get so frustrated with Washington," the president said in a brief public statement from the White House. "Has this place become so dysfunctional that even when people agree to things, we can't do it? ... Enough is enough."
Appealing to popular frustration with Washington, the president tried to pressure Republicans by citing accounts from Americans -- which the White House solicited on Twitter -- about the impact of the impasse. The tax cut is worth about $40 per paycheck for a family earning $50,000. Reading accounts from those who wrote in, the president said that money could go toward a tank of gas, a new pair of shoes, dinner with family, or a donation to charity.
"These are the things that are at stake for millions of Americans," he said.
A majority of lawmakers across Capitol Hill agree that the payroll tax cut should be extended. But they disagree on how to pay for it -- and whether those disagreements should be bridged before or after Jan. 1, 2012.
House Republicans want the Senate to negotiate before the end of the year on a yearlong package to extend the payroll tax cut, as well as unemployment benefits. However, Obama on Thursday continued to back Senate demands that the House pass its two-month extension now, with the goal of negotiating a yearlong extension in early 2012.
"This should not be hard," Obama said. He blamed a "faction of House Republicans" for the deadlock on Capitol Hill over a payroll tax cut extension, saying Thursday he's ready to sign the extension "the second it lands on my desk."
Despite the statement, Congress did not appear any closer to resolving the dispute. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said Thursday that, "It's disappointing the president says he agrees with the House's desire for a full-year extension but has still declined to negotiate with Republicans to make it a reality."
The criticism was a reference to a request Boehner made earlier on a phone call with the president. Boehner asked him to send his economic team to Capitol Hill to negotiate a full-year extension, but "the president declined the speaker's offer," according to Boehner's office.
Both sides are standing by their original demands.
According to the White House, during the call Obama "reiterated to the speaker that the only viable option currently on the table is for the House of Representatives to pass the bipartisan Senate compromise that received the support of nearly 90 percent of the Senate."
The conversation followed a press conference in which Republicans, standing their ground despite questions about a possible middle road involving a three-month extension, asked why Senate Democrats and the president won't return to the negotiating table.
"We're here and we want to solve the problem," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said.
Referring to the president's shopping trip in northern Virginia with his dog on Wednesday, Cantor joked: "We're pet-friendly here. ... he can bring his dog up here."
Meanwhile, Michigan Republican Rep. Dave Camp said in an interview on CNBC Thursday that a three-month extension could at least help employers with their quarterly reports.
It's unclear whether the White House or Senate Democrats would be open to a three-month measure. Boehner, too, pushed back on the idea when asked about it at the GOP press conference, though he didn't definitively rule it out. He said "nothing" can happen until House lawmakers have somebody on the Senate side with whom to negotiate.
"The fact is we can do better," Boehner said of the Senate bill.
Boehner spoke shortly before Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell broke his silence on the dispute, urging Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid to appoint lawmakers to negotiate a compromise package with the House -- and urging the House to pass an extension that "prevents any disruption in the payroll tax holiday."
Though McConnell helped negotiate the two-month package that won broad bipartisan support in the Senate over the weekend, he said the goals of the House and Senate are "not mutually exclusive."
"House Republicans sensibly want greater certainty about the duration of these provisions, while Senate Democrats want more time to negotiate the terms. These goals are not mutually exclusive. We can and should do both," he said.
Separately, as an alternative to bringing Congress back to vote on a two-month extension, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote a letter to Boehner opening the door to a "unanimous consent" vote -- a particular kind of vote often used in Congress that would allow the House to vote on the Senate bill without members' individual votes being recorded.
However, if a three-month compromise were on the table, lawmakers conceivably could hash that out in the conference and then send back the compromise to each chamber for a "UC." That's assuming that the Republican caucus would agree to a 90-day deal.
The payroll trade association that weighed in this week saying a two-month extension is impractical in terms of updating software and getting the books fixed before the cut expired did say that a 90-day extension would be slightly more doable, since most businesses operate on a quarterly basis.
Speaking about the difficulty of a two-month extension earlier this week, Boehner said as a former small businessman he preferred to schedule plans for his company on a quarterly basis.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.