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What's Behind House GOP's Payroll Tax Reversal?


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

A bitter fight in Congress is come to an end just in time for Christmas. The House and the Senate this morning, approved an extension of payroll tax cuts for every worker and benefits for the long-term unemployed. This required a major reversal for House Republicans who, earlier this week, voted to reject a nearly identical compromise.

Joining us now to explain what changed is NPR congressional reporter Tamara Keith. Good morning.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So things moved quickly this morning. The vote just happened. What happened to get them to this point?

KEITH: Well, and I will say that there were two sessions, the Senate and the House. And they spent about a minute or two or three each. It was very fast, no objections extending this tax break and unemployment benefits for two months while they work out a longer-term deal. So, what happened here is officially that the House got some minor concessions on the Senate version that they had rejected earlier in the week. This will fix some problems that there were with reporting so that payroll tax for small businesses - a very minor thing. And Senate majority leader Harry Reid has now appointed members to a conference committee, which will begin working almost immediately to find a yearlong compromise, which is what everyone wanted.

This also contains the Keystone pipeline language, forcing President Obama to make a decision on the controversial crude oil pipeline within 60 days. But that was in the Senate bill already. So if you step back, the House GOP got a tiny change to the Senate bill and a massive black eye.

WERTHEIMER: So they were under obviously under considerable pressure to make this whole thing go away.

KEITH: Indeed. Considerable pressure, particularly from within their own party. Fellow Republicans saying that the standoff was hurting the party. And yesterday, at a press conference, House Speaker John Boehner admitted that the last few days didn't go so well.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: It may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world. But I'm going to tell you what. I think our members waged a good fight. We were able to come to an agreement. We were able to fix what came out of the Senate.

KEITH: And now that this has passed both Houses, they can all go home without having to look at headlines that say Congress destroys Christmas for millions.

WERTHEIMER: The Congress is the Grinch. What is this whole thing say, do you think, about the way John Boehner operates. It took him a while, but he seems to have gotten where he appeared to want to go in the first place.

KEITH: Yeah. He has this saying; he likes to say that he lets the House work its will. And sometimes that means that there are embarrassing votes for something that's supposed to pass and it fails unexpectedly. It means that he listens to his rank and file members and will do something like what happened this week that creates a huge amount of political blowback. But he let them try and then it didn't work, and then he moves on. And finally, by the end of this week he really did enforce his will on the House, as opposed to the other way around.

WERTHEIMER: I read this morning in the paper that he when he had a telephone conference with them, he wouldn't take questions. He just basically laid down the law and hung up.


KEITH: Well, because last time he did, and it turned into a very and uncomfortable conversation.

WERTHEIMER: So, the conference committee made soon. Where do you see the conflicts?

KEITH: Two big things: How to pay for all of this. A year of these extensions adds up to billions and billions of dollars. And then, another big fight is over unemployment benefits. Republicans want to shortage the duration of benefits, and they also want to require things like drug tests and GED programs. And Democrats say that those reforms would be burdensome and demeaning. So, that's where the fight is going to be.

WERTHEIMER: NPR congressional reporter, Tamara Keith. Thank you very much.

KEITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.