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The Myth of the Actually Negotiating Conference Committee

Steve Benen thinks that the payroll tax cut is doomed, based on the conferees the Senate Republicans added to hammer out a long-term agreement.

The newly named Republican conferees are Senators Jon Kyl of Arizona, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho and John Barrasso of Wyoming […]

These aren’t three senators you’d appoint to a conference committee if you want to be constructive. These are three senators you’d appoint to a conference committee if you want to be destructive.

Kyl, for example, was instrumental in sabotaging the super-committee process, and was described by Democratic negotiators as “walking napalm.” Crapo and Barrasso, meanwhile, are two far-right senators who’ve never demonstrated any willingness to accept concessions on anything.

What’s more, note that the House GOP leadership has already announced its conferees, most of whom have already said they don’t want a payroll-cut extension no matter what concessions Democrats are willing to make.

On the contrary, Crapo voted for the Bowles-Simpson recommendations and was part of the Gang of Six.  More important, who gets selected for the conference committee doesn’t matter even a little bit. If they meet in anything but a canned environment for the cameras I’d be stunned. If the GOP leadership decides not to participate in extending the expiring measures, they will blame the conference committee. But that will not be a decision of the conference committee. They’re just a convenient object.

If you’re asking whether Republicans would want everything to expire, there’s a plausible argument. Making the economy worse on the margins helps their candidate for President in November. If they can pin it on the conference committee “failing to come to an agreement” rather than Republican intransigence, all the better.

But they tried this at the end of the year. They had the House pass a poison pill-laden year-long extension and then tried to blame the delay in passage on the Senate. “We did our job,” John Boehner said, daring Harry Reid and the Democrats to do theirs. And this didn’t work for them, because nobody reported it that way, and the public tends not to believe the party that has hijacked negotiations repeatedly for a year when they squeal that it’s the other side doing the hostage-taking this time.

So while the dynamic isn’t perfectly similar, I think Republicans in Congress a) are still concerned that they will take the blame if the measures expire, and b) still have to run in 2012 themselves, and may suffer with the trappings of incumbency in a weak economy. Plus, c) there’s a symmetry to having everything controversial expire at the end of 2012, and letting the election be a referendum on all of it.

That doesn’t mean passage of a year-long extension is assured. But it’s not really a conference committee decision.

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David Dayen

David Dayen