House GOP Makes Rare Unconditional Offer on Payroll Tax Cut Extension

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The House GOP leadership announced on Monday that it would back an extension of a payroll tax cut through the end of the year without making offsetting cuts or tacking on unrelated policies. Read that again. Congress could be poised to pass a genuine bipartisan proposal more than a week before its deadline without submitting the country to another bloody battle over who pays for what and how. In matters of taxes and spending, that hasn’t happened in quite some time.

Not that the two parties are exactly holding hands about the deal. “Because the President and Senate Democratic leaders have not allowed their conferees to support a responsible bipartisan agreement, today House Republicans will introduce a backup plan that would simply extend the payroll tax holiday for the remainder of the year while the conference negotiations continue regarding offsets, unemployment insurance, and the ‘doc fix,’” a statement from Speaker John Boehner, majority leader Eric Cantor and whip Kevin McCarthy read. “If Democrats continue to refuse to negotiate in good faith, Republicans may schedule this measure for House consideration later this week pending a conversation with our members.”

There are a few possible explanations for this surprising turn of events. One is simply that Democrats had the upperhand politically, bashing the GOP into submission by accusing them of threatening to raise taxes on workers when they insisted that the budgetary cost of the tax break be offset by spending cuts. Another is a recognition that in the 11th hour fiscal negotiations that have dominated Congress in the past year, there are no winners: as evidenced by the body’s subterranean approval rating, Americans are sick to death of such drawn-out battles. It also could have been a tactical feint, to better position themselves for the ongoing fight over the annual fix to Medicare reimbursement rates and, more importantly, the extension of unemployment benefits which many Republicans oppose. Or it might have been some combination of all of the above.

Regardless, even with the GOP leadership behind it, the tax cut extension is still not a done deal. It’s not yet entirely clear Republicans will have the support of the huge conservative wing of its conference, a few Blue Dog Democrats might defect, and liberals may be reluctant to decouple the payroll tax cut from jobless insurance. But the move toward unconditional passage of an unpaid for payroll tax holiday by the House GOP is pretty remarkable. It’s been a long time since anyone in D.C. used the phrase “no strings attached” and meant it.