GOP maps strategy in wake of payroll tax debacle

Donna Cassata

WASHINGTON (AP) — When last seen in Washington, House Republicans were furious with their own leader, Speaker John Boehner, and angry with their Senate Republican brethren over how the showdown over the Social Security tax cut turned into a year-end political debacle.

The holidays and three weeks away from the Capitol have tempered some of the bad feelings, but several GOP lawmakers’ emotions are still raw as Congress returns for a 2012 session certain to be driven by election-year politics and fierce fights over the size and scope of government and its taxing, spending and borrowing practices.

In the week before Christmas, House Republicans revolted against the Senate-passed deal to extend the payroll tax cut for two months for 160 million workers and ensure jobless benefits for millions more long-term unemployed. Facing intense political pressure, Boehner, R-Ohio, caved, daring tea partyers and other dissenters to challenge his decision to pass the short-term plan without a roll-call vote. None stepped forward to stop him.

“A lot of us who went into battle turned around and no one was behind us,” freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said last week, sounding like the fight was still fresh and insistent that leadership had abandoned them.

“A lot of us are still smarting,” he added.

The two-month extension that Senate Republican and Democratic leaders Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid had characterized as a draw ended up as a big victory for President Barack Obama at the end of a year in which Republicans had forced him to accept a series of spending cuts.

Grievances are certain to be aired at a House GOP retreat in Baltimore later this week. The strategy and agenda session also will be a gripe session for some of the 242 House Republicans.

“It might be a little more spunky than normal,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

Senators come back to Capitol Hill on Jan. 23.

The wave of Republicans who lifted the GOP to the House majority in the 2010 elections emerged from their first year frustrated by the limitations of divided government and the recurring, down-to-the-wire fights over spending — in April, the squabble was over keeping the government operating, and in August lawmakers dueled over increasing the nation’s borrowing authority. And at year’s end, there was another rhetorical shoot-out over keeping the government running.

Tea partyers who came to Washington intent on deep cuts to counter the growing deficit railed against the budget numbers and the all-too-frequent fights.

“There was a Groundhog Day quality to 2011,” said freshman Rep. Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y.

Boehner, who frequently had to rally the disparate elements of his caucus, was a bit bruised by the year’s final act. Still, he remains well in control of his caucus, with Republicans recognizing that any leadership challenge or internal strife now would be politically disastrous.

In the coming year, House Republicans remain doubtful about accomplishing anything more than the must-do spending bills and a year-long extension of the Social Security tax cuts, unemployment benefits and a reprieve in the cuts to doctors for Medicare payments. Congress faces a Feb. 29 deadline to agree on a new extension, no easy task after last year’s deep divisions but politically inevitable as lawmakers would be loath to raise taxes in an election year.

Uncertain is the fate of a highway bill and reauthorization of a farm bill, legislation that could mean jobs in a struggling economy but measures also likely to get caught up in the typical fight over how to pay for the programs.

Republicans are pinning their hopes on November’s elections and the tantalizing possibility that the GOP holds the House, wins four or more of the Senate seats needed to seize control and the party’s nominee ousts Obama. Controlling both the presidency and Congress would be a mandate for significant change.

Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., bemoaned the failure last summer of the so-called “grand bargain” between Obama and Boehner for massive spending cuts, the promise of overhauling the tax code and reductions in entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The bipartisan deficit-reduction supercommittee fared no better in the fall.

“It’s hard to see us getting out of the mess we’re in until there’s another election,” Rooney said.

The year of brinksmanship produced little legislation that became law while approval ratings for Congress dropped to single digits. The House passed 384 measures in 2011, the Senate 402, according to the Congressional Record. The Senate had 24 bills enacted into law, the House 56 in one of the least productive years in history.

Republicans are gearing up for Obama campaign attacks on a “do-nothing Congress,” ready to counter that many of their bills went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Top on the list: The House completed a budget last year and the Senate did not.

Last April, the House passed a $1.019 trillion budget plan that would have sharply cut spending, changed Medicaid into a block grant program and transformed Medicare by providing voucher-style federal payments to buy private insurance coverage instead of direct government payments to health care providers. Democrats vilified the plan by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and warned of the impact the Medicare changes would have on seniors.

Ryan is expected to unveil another budget this spring. Mulvaney said the GOP is eager to push for changes in the budget process, beginning with requiring Congress to pass a budget.

Adding to the uncertainty in a volatile election year are the dozen or so House Republicans whose tea party purity about reducing the government’s reach often outweighs re-election concerns, making other Republicans nervous as the party looks to hold onto its 50-seat edge.

Some have dubbed the tea partiers the “Braveheart caucus” for their affection for the 1995 Mel Gibson movie about William Wallace, who led the fight for Scotland’s independence. Wallace was hanged and quartered.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.