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The Conference Committee Option: A Way Out on the Payroll Tax Showdown?

Should we put them in a conference with instructions to solve this? (Photo: Lucy Nieto flickr)

National Journal’s Major Garrett sketches out a possible scenario for an acceptable endgame to the payroll tax fight.

House Republicans see the futility of fighting President Obama the week before Christmas and agree to the Senate’s two-month payroll-tax cut extension on one condition: Senate Democrats agree to go to conference on a full, one-year payroll tax extension with spending cut offsets by Feb. 1. Senior House GOP aides would not say if this is under active consideration but would not rule it out. John Harwood of CNBC and The New York Times first reported this possibility. Probability: 50 percent.

I could see this happening. Republicans are all in on this conference committee, which is amusing because they’ve abandoned them for the bulk of this Congress. So they can say that they got the negotiation session they needed, and that they allowed the stopgap just to get through the negotiation period.

To be clear, I like conference committees. They indeed do represent what should be the regular order of the House and Senate, to resolve differences in legislation. They have become an endangered species of late because, with an increasingly polarized, Parliamentary-style Congress, the differences are more intra-party rather than intra-chamber. In addition, conference motions can be filibustered in the Senate, and sometimes the minority have used that tactic to block conferences from happening.

This payroll tax situation is actually a case where, unlike past practice, the party leadership doesn’t want to shoulder the responsibility for coming up with the compromise, at least not in the House. Speaker Boehner tried that by empowering Mitch McConnell, and he lost his caucus on the compromise in the process. So by naming conferees from the whole range of the caucus, they can take the credit – or the blame – for the compromise that results.

Sarah Binder has more on why the GOP went the conference route on this one.

So why did the House GOP insist on a conference with the Senate—contrary to recent trends? If the party’s key priority is securing swift agreement on a full year extension of the payroll tax cut, going to conference is a particularly inefficient way to go about it. I suspect instead that rank and file legislators’ suspicions (let alone Eric Cantor’s) about Speaker Boehner’s conservative bona fides—not to mention their mistrust of Senate leaders McConnell and Reid—made a leader-dominated game of ping pong or more negotiations behind closed doors especially unpalatable. And for those GOP opposed to extending the payroll tax cut altogether, insisting on “regular order” provides political cover for a potentially unpopular position.

If the solution lies in allowing the conference committee to go forward, while passing the two-month extension in the meantime, it doesn’t mean that the conferees will make the final decisions on the bill, however. Party leaders often get involved in the backroom negotiations on the compromise, and often the conference committee is nothing more than a staged event for the cameras. The conference committee option is a political one, which allows House Republicans to save face, despite having badly botched the debate.

CommunityThe Bullpen

The Conference Committee Option: A Way Out on the Payroll Tax Showdown?

National Journal’s Major Garrett sketches out a possible scenario for an acceptable endgame to the payroll tax fight.

House Republicans see the futility of fighting President Obama the week before Christmas and agree to the Senate’s two-month payroll-tax cut extension on one condition: Senate Democrats agree to go to conference on a full, one-year payroll tax extension with spending cut offsets by Feb. 1. Senior House GOP aides would not say if this is under active consideration but would not rule it out. John Harwood of CNBC and The New York Times first reported this possibility. Probability: 50 percent.

I could see this happening. Republicans are all in on this conference committee, which is amusing because they’ve abandoned them for the bulk of this Congress. So they can say that they got the negotiation session they needed, and that they allowed the stopgap just to get through the negotiation period.

To be clear, I like conference committees. They indeed do represent what should be the regular order of the House and Senate, to resolve differences in legislation. They have become an endangered species of late because, with an increasingly polarized, Parliamentary-style Congress, the differences are more intra-party rather than intra-chamber. In addition, conference motions can be filibustered in the Senate, and sometimes the minority have used that tactic to block conferences from happening.

This payroll tax situation is actually a case where, unlike past practice, the party leadership doesn’t want to shoulder the responsibility for coming up with the compromise, at least not in the House. Speaker Boehner tried that by empowering Mitch McConnell, and he lost his caucus on the compromise in the process. So by naming conferees from the whole range of the caucus, they can take the credit – or the blame – for the compromise that results.

Sarah Binder has more on why the GOP went the conference route on this one.

So why did the House GOP insist on a conference with the Senate—contrary to recent trends? If the party’s key priority is securing swift agreement on a full year extension of the payroll tax cut, going to conference is a particularly inefficient way to go about it. I suspect instead that rank and file legislators’ suspicions (let alone Eric Cantor’s) about Speaker Boehner’s conservative bona fides—not to mention their mistrust of Senate leaders McConnell and Reid—made a leader-dominated game of ping pong or more negotiations behind closed doors especially unpalatable. And for those GOP opposed to extending the payroll tax cut altogether, insisting on “regular order” provides political cover for a potentially unpopular position.

If the solution lies in allowing the conference committee to go forward, while passing the two-month extension in the meantime, it doesn’t mean that the conferees will make the final decisions on the bill, however. Party leaders often get involved in the backroom negotiations on the compromise, and often the conference committee is nothing more than a staged event for the cameras. The conference committee option is a political one, which allows House Republicans to save face, despite having badly botched the debate.

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David Dayen

David Dayen