About 160 million Americans got a last-minute holiday gift on Friday, courtesy of President Obama and a House of Representatives that’s managed to play the role of Santa Claus and Scrooge at the same time. It’s better than a stocking stuffer, it’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving (for another two months, anyway), something you wouldn’t dream of returning.
Wherever you live in the United States, you may have heard the shriek of an elephant on Friday, when the president signed a two-month extension of the 2 percent payroll tax cut, and extended unemployment benefits and authorized maintaining the current reimbursement Medicare rate — all of it a great year-end win for ordinary Americans.
House Republicans gave in to President Obama and congressional Democrats, joining the Senate in approving the measure in a voice vote by unanimous consent, before lawmakers (the ones who hadn’t left town already) vacated the capitol en masse heading for the holiday break.
Despite a short-lived threat by House Republicans to express their objections on the floor of the House and blow up the deal, nothing happened. The grumblers went along with what was a done deal, a hard-fought win for Democrats on taxes, an issue that will resonate with voters next year, in the run-up to an election that may well hinge on voter perceptions of who cares the most about the middle class.
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Under the deal, the payroll tax stays at the current 4.2 percent rate instead of going back to the 6.2 percent rate it was at before the cut was put in place in 2010. Without the outcome that just played out on the Hill, the higher rate would have come back on Jan. 1, adding about $1,000 in taxes for each of millions of Americans still lucky enough to pull down a paycheck. John or Jane Doe’s take-home pay would have dropped by about $40 per pay period without the tax cut.
“When Congress returns,” the president said, “I urge them to keep working without drama, without delay to reach an agreement that extends this tax cut as well as unemployment insurance through all of 2012.”
"This is some good news just in the nick of time," Obama said before leaving for his own well-earned break in Hawaii. “We have a lot more work to do. This continues to be a make-or-break moment for the middle class in this country.”
Everybody took a shot at the GOP piñata. “I hope this Congress has had a very good learning experience, especially those who are new to this body,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said at a Friday news conference. “Everything we do around here does not have to end up in a fight. ... There’s no reason to do that. I would hope the new members of the House understand legislation is the art of compromise, consensus building.”
Obama and Reid, among other Democrats, used more decorous language, but they essentially told the House of Representatives what Lauryn Hill said some time back: “You might win some but you just lost one.”
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In the partisan hothouse of Washington, victory and defeat are often filtered through any number of spinmeisters who try to contextualize legislative actions according to political party. But even by the most partisan perspective, this was an unalloyed win for Team Obama, and a big blow to the GOP.
The outcome in all this looks especially bad for Speakerphone of the House John Boehner, who tacked back and forth with no clear direction, at the mercy of the House Republican caucus. CNN explains why:
“The speaker, according to multiple accounts, initially favored the two-month extension, which had passed the Senate with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. He was then apparently forced to retreat from that position last weekend in the face of a tea party-fueled revolt in which freshman conservatives in particular demanded an immediate 12-month extension.
“Facing rising Republican establishment fears that the GOP was squandering its political advantage on taxes, the speaker again reversed himself on Thursday, this time essentially consenting to the Senate's terms.
“The final bill is virtually the same Senate proposal House Republicans rejected earlier this week.”
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Boehner vacillated between his own political instincts to accept the two-month deal and a willingness to placate those in the restive Tea Party Republican wing (and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor) to reject it. It's that vacillation, which got more and more obvious as the thing dragged on, that doesn't redound favorably for Boehner's image as House Speaker.
He gets some practical cred for wanting to accept the two-month deal originally, it's true, but the protracted (and ultimately unnecessary) back and forth on Capitol Hill for the last week, and his role in prolonging it, have made Boehner look feckless and slow-footed.
Proof? Late Thursday, when the outcome on the standoff was clear, Boehner told reporters that the House Republicans’ objection to the Senate plan was right and proper on the proverbial merits. "It may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world," Boehner said (ya think?), but "we were able to fix what came out of the Senate."
"I talked to enough members over the last 24 hours who say we don't like the two-month extension [but] why not do the right thing for the American people even if it's not exactly what we want."
And there’s the problem. If Boehner and his Tea Party partners agreed that extending the tax cuts was “the right thing for the American people,” why the hell did they put the nation through this crap for the past two weeks?
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There’ve been dread-laced thoughts of what’s coming in February, when the two months’ extension is over. Some in the punditburo have voiced fears that the Tea Party virus buried in the Republican bloodstream will resurface with a renewed congressional attack against anything resembling support for the middle class.
But there’s a powerful force against a repeat of what just happened: It’s the calendar.
Even though we’re doomed to circle back to the issue again in 60 days, the underlying premise, what’s animating it, will be the same as it ever was: helping the middle class achieve income equality (in this case, meaning getting their incomes close to equal to what they used to be). Then as now, the burden will be on the Republicans to justify literally taking food from the mouths of 160 million Americans, and to do it in the heat of an election year.
As voters begin to sort wheat from chaff and bring the candidates’ stump speeches and policy ideas into clarity, the burden will be on the Republicans to fight extending that middle class tax cut without even considering raising taxes on the rich and the superrich, millionaires and billionaires -- the one American cohort that can afford a tax increase.
If Americans need that extra 2 percent in their paychecks right now, days before Christmas, they’ll certainly need it in February (when the Christmas bills start coming due) and beyond. Since nothing in their financial status will have changed much, if at all, the basic rationale for making the first tax-cut extension won’t have changed either.
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For President Obama, that’s an important fact to take into consideration. He appears to have found a winning strategy for the campaign about to get cranked up. This most cerebral president in decades has brought it down a notch. He’s starting to connect with the deepest bench of the American people: the ones sitting at the kitchen table, juggling the bills with a calculator, coffee and a deep faith in check float.
A lot of the same everyday people who helped Obama win in 2008.
It’s already paying the president dividends where it counts. His polling numbers have been trending up in recent weeks, as more people have got their heads around the payroll tax-cut issue and what it means in real terms. Today’s events will give him another bump of support; you’ll likely see that in the flash polls by this weekend, and in the legacy polls next week.
The numbers we know about and the ones we don’t all reflect a strategy that’s working for Obama and the Democrats. It goes without saying: You don’t fix what ain’t broke. They also point to what’s not working for the House GOP: an attempt at face-saving damage control that causes more damage than it controls.
Image credits: Obama: whitehouse.gov. Boehner news conference: Still from pool video.