Obama, Boehner lock horns in payroll tax fight

WASHINGTON Tue Dec 20, 2011 6:22pm EST

1 of 6. U.S. President Barack Obama is pictured alongside a payroll tax cut extension count down monitor as he speaks to the media in the briefing room of the White House in Washington December 20, 2011. A stand-off in the Congress over extending payroll tax cuts deepened on Tuesday, raising the risk that 160 million U.S. workers could see a hit to their income next month

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama demanded on Tuesday that Republicans in the House of Representatives pass a short-term extension of a payroll tax cut, showing an unwillingness to back down in a fight that could result in higher taxes for 160 million Americans.

The Republican-led House earlier rejected a short-term deal passed by Democrats and fellow Republicans in the Senate over the weekend and called for fresh negotiations on the expiring tax break that saves the average American worker $1,000 a year.

As both sides dug more deeply into entrenched positions, House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, demanded Obama order Senate Democrats back into session to haggle over a year-long extension.

"I need the president to help out," Boehner told reporters, drawing applause from a large group of Republican lawmakers standing behind him in the Capitol.

In a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room, a visibly frustrated Obama told lawmakers to put politics aside. "Let's not play brinkmanship," he said.

"The clock is ticking. Time is running out. And if the House Republicans refuse to vote for the Senate bill or even allow it to come up for a vote, taxes will go up in 11 days," he said.

Prospects for the Democratic-controlled Senate reopening negotiations remained dim as Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid insisted he would not recall the chamber to reopen negotiations. Reid has won backing from some Republicans in the Senate, who have called on their colleagues in the House to back the deal.

Reid "will stick to his guns" and refuse to reopen negotiations, a senior Democratic aide said after the House vote. "Taxes will go up -- or Boehner will cave," the aide said.

Both parties believe they have the upper hand in the year-end battle. Republicans are betting Democrats fear a voter backlash in 2012 if the tax break expires and will eventually bow to their demands. Democrats, however, are gambling the same is true for Republicans.

The House Republican demand for a one-year extension marks a surprising turnabout since for months they were openly skeptical of its economic benefits. Now they argue a two-month extension creates uncertainty for workers and employers and is unworkable.

RECESSION THREAT

The Senate passed the short-term extension on Saturday because Republicans and Democrats could not agree on how to pay for it for a full year. It was not clear how House Republicans hope to overcome that hurdle.

The U.S. Treasury Department weighed into the debate for the first time, saying while it would prefer a full-year extension, it could implement the short-term measure.

Failure to extend the tax break and benefits for millions of unemployed Americans, which expire on December 31, could heighten the possibility of a U.S. recession in 2012, some economists have warned.

"You're either going to have an okay rate of economic growth next year or a pretty subpar one, and it will be determined in large part by U.S. politicians," said Eric Lascelles, chief economist at RBC Global Asset Management in Toronto.

Many had expected the year-end negotiations on renewing the tax break would be difficult, but what had been thought to be a brawl has exploded into a full-scale battle.

Washington gridlock and dysfunction is fueling an anti-incumbent mood among voters heading into next year's elections, with Congress' popularity at a very low 11 percent.

The political bickering has brought the government to the verge of a shutdown three times this year and led to rating agency Standard & Poor's cutting America's prized AAA credit rating.

The biggest sticking point for a year-long extension is how to cover the $120 billion in lost revenue to the Social Security Trust Fund. Republicans are demanding spending cuts to cover the cost and Democrats want to pay for it by closing some tax breaks for the wealthy.

The Senate bill included a provision demanded by House Republicans that would force Obama to accelerate a decision on TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL oil pipeline project between Canada and Texas, which is backed by some labor unions but opposed by environmental groups.

Over the weekend Boehner called the Keystone provision a victory for House Republicans because Obama had strongly opposed efforts to link Keystone with the payroll tax cut.

But the "sweetener" was not enough to quell overwhelming opposition to the Senate bill. The revolt has raised questions about Boehner's ability to control his restive caucus, which has repeatedly balked this year at compromising with Democrats.

(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert, Donna Smith, Leah Schnurr, Rachelle Younglai, Kim Dixon and Caren Bohan; writing by Deborah Charles and David Lawder; Editing by Ross Colvin and Todd Eastham)

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