WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pressed House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio in a phone call Wednesday to break a stalemate over a payroll tax-cut extension or risk imposing a "holiday tax hike" on working Americans.
Obama urged the Republican leader of the House of Representatives to accept a two-month extension that cleared the Senate on Saturday with Republican backing, and the president promised he'd work with Congress after the holidays to see it extended for a full year.
That measure is the "only option" to prevent a "holiday tax hike" on Jan. 1, the White House warned. "The ball is in the House's court," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. "There is a compromise available, an avenue out of this blind alley that they've driven themselves into, and it is the Senate bill. Vote on it. Pass it."
But Boehner, whose Republican caucus rebelled against the Senate deal, gave little ground, blocking a Democratic attempt to bring up the Senate bill on the House floor Wednesday. House Republicans say a two-month extension is disruptive to business and bad policy, and that the tax cut should be extended now for a full year.
Boehner charged on the Michael Medved radio show that the short-term version would create uncertainty, and he said he'd told Obama that all that was necessary to reach a compromise on a one-year deal was for him to tell Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to call the Senate back.
"I've got eight people ready to negotiate," Boehner said. "We're ready to sit down and resolve these differences. And the sooner we do it, the better off we'll be."
But the House was coming under increasing pressure even from its allies to accept the Senate's approach before the tax cut expires, when voters may blame Republicans for a hike in payroll taxes on 160 million Americans.
The Wall Street Journal, which usually sides with conservatives, published a lead editorial Wednesday headlined, "The GOP's Payroll Tax Fiasco." Its primary point was that House Republicans are playing a losing game politically that could end up helping to re-elect Obama. It accused the House GOP of operating like a "circular firing squad," and it urged Republicans to "cut their losses "and extend the payroll holiday.
The Journal, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said from his Twitter feed, is "right on the mark here."
The White House, too, amped up online efforts to pressure Republicans, noting that it's received more than 20,000 responses to its call via Twitter for Americans to share what $40 buys, the estimated average per-week hike if the tax break expires.
Carney read a few at his daily briefing, including one from a respondent from West Virginia, who noted that "$40 is my gas for my car to get to work. Taking $40 away from my pay would just about put me under."
"This matters," Carney said. "This is not about high-stakes poker or political brinksmanship. It's about 160 million Americans and their families and the impact that failure to act would have on them."
The Capitol was largely deserted Wednesday. The Senate had left town Saturday with the expectation that the House would accept its two-month measure, and Senate Majority Leader Reid has said he doesn't plan to call his chamber back before it reconvenes Jan. 23.
If nothing is done by Jan. 1, employees will pay a 6.2 percent Social Security tax on their pay, 2 percentage points higher than the current rate. In addition, Medicare payments to doctors will drop 27.4 percent and jobless workers will be unable to get up to 99 weeks of benefits.
The House met briefly Wednesday morning and Democrats tried unsuccessfully to bring up the Senate measure for a vote. Republicans refused.
"We were on the floor to work and they walked out," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Boehner met with the eight negotiators he'd selected to work out a deal with Democrats. But no Democratic negotiators have been appointed from either congressional chamber, nor have any Senate Republicans.
"We're here. We're ready to go to work," Boehner said.
"As a mom, I care about those single moms out there," said Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., one of Boehner's negotiators. "You know we can't take money out of their pockets right now, especially at the holidays."
Obama also spoke with Reid, who told the president he was committed to securing a yearlong deal "after the House passes the two-month extension," the White House said.
His calls over, Obama sped to a suburban Petsmart and a Best Buy in nearby Alexandria, Va. — a 2012 swing state — for some Christmas shopping. He was accompanied by Bo, the family's Portuguese water dog, the only other Obama at the White House.
First lady Michelle Obama and the couple's daughters, Sasha and Malia, left for their Christmas holiday in Hawaii last Friday. The White House wouldn't say whether the president will be in Hawaii to deliver the gifts Sunday. He'd hoped to leave for vacation last Saturday, but he may be finding that the best politics involves staying in the capital, at least for now.
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