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Payroll tax concession highlights divisions in House GOP ranks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2011 - WASHINGTON - In a nearly empty U.S. House chamber, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, offered the "unanimous consent" motion on Friday to accept the Senate's payroll tax compromise, and Speaker John Boehner quickly sealed the deal.

No conservative Republican members were in the chamber to block the motion, but plenty of them were critical of the way Boehner, R-Ohio, gave in to Senate demands for a two-month extension rather than the year-long payroll tax extension -- along with other provisions -- that House Republicans had insisted on all week.

"I am disappointed that our Republican leadership in both the House and Senate chose a course of political expediency rather than standing on conservative principle," said Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, in a statement Friday. "By the use of extraordinary measures, our House leadership advanced a bill that I am certain many conservative members are not happy with."

In this case, the "extraordinary" measure was Boehner's conference call with holiday-scattered House Republicans on Thursday, laying down the law and insisting that the only way to avoid a lapse in the payroll tax break was for the House to accept the Senate version -- tweaked slightly to help small businesses -- in a unanimous consent motion. While numerous GOP members balked, and some threatened to show up and block the vote, none did in the end.

So Emerson, the dean of Missouri's congressional delegation, offered the motion, Boehner heard no objection, and the Senate version was accepted by unanimous consent, without House debate.

"The personal finances of working American families is no place to play politics," Emerson said in a statement. "Until we reach a final agreement on the 12-month package and how to pay for it, it is right and necessary to have a short-term solution in place. So I do support the two-month extension of this important tax relief to allow us to get a year-long solution in place."

But Akin was among the House GOP members, including many freshmen backed by the tea party, who were unhappy with the last-minute deal. "It is my belief that it is far better to stand on principle than to act on perceived short-term political advantage," he said.

Akin, who supported the House-passed one-year extension, said he was "very concerned that this two-month extension does not provide stability and is administratively onerous for small business. Further, it is much inferior to the House bill, which was a comprehensive package that included a year-long tax break," as well as a two-year "doc fix" that would assure physicians of being reimbursed properly by Medicare. (The Senate version included a two-month "doc fix.")

Another Missouri Republican to express dismay over Boehner's concession was freshman Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, who won election last fall with tea party backing. "I am disappointed," Long said in a statement. "I knew it would be settled one way or the other. I just wish it had been the other. That may have been too much to ask from a Senate that hasn't passed a budget in over 975 days."

But Missouri Democrats said they were relieved that a short-term solution had been found, even though they had qualms about some parts of the Senate's compromise.

"This short-term compromise agreement will mean 160 million working Americans can keep their $1,000 tax cut while Congress negotiates a longer extension. The legislation will also ensure that seniors keep access to their doctors," Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said Friday.

Carnahan, who had harshly criticized House Republicans earlier in the week for blocking the Senate compromise, asserted Friday that "this moment of bipartisan agreement is due to all the Missourians and Americans across the country who spoke out" and pressured their representatives to cut a deal.

Both Missouri Democrats and Republicans said it was important for newly appointed members of the House and Senate conference committees on the payroll tax bill to come to an agreement as soon as feasible next month on the terms of a one-year extension and how it should be paid for.

Emerson said she was "pleased that the Senate has agreed to come to the table and negotiate for a year-long extension of the payroll tax cut. It's important to have this issue settled with certainty for working American families and employers. I hope that happens sooner than later."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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