Republican Senate leaders accused Democrats of reneging on a budget deal and risking a government shutdown in order to win political points and gain an edge in the payroll tax cut fight. Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said a deal was in place between Democrats and Republicans over legislation to keep the government funded through 2012, using a conference report as a legislative vehicle.
"We had an agreement," McConnell said. "It's a rarity around here that you have bipartisan agreement on a number of appropriations bills, and the president, presumably to win some political issue which I find difficult to understand, has instructed Democratic senators not to sign the conference report on a bill they support." McConnell noted news reports that claimed Democrats and the White House were looking to use the budget bill as an edge in the fight over the payroll tax cut, which is also coming to a head at the year's end.
The White House, and Senate Democrats, strongly rebut the claim. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that the budget deal was never finished, and several outstanding issues—including policy restrictions over financial and environmental regulation—remain. "There are six or seven issues that need to be resolved," Reid said at an afternoon press conference Tuesday. "But we're very close."
The escalation in rhetoric comes as the possibility of a government shutdown over Christmas rises from a miniscule threat to a possible—if still unlikely—outcome. Congress will have to pass something by December 16 in order to keep most government departments running. In typical Washington fashion, the two sides can't even agree on what the hangup is. Republicans on the Appropriations Committee don't deny that the budget package included so-called policy riders, or amendments using Congress's power of the purse to force federal policy changes. But they claim that Democrats already agreed to the riders before interference from Senate Democratic leadership.
How to keep the government funded through 2012 was one of many issues facing Congress before the year-end break, but it had typically taken a back seat to the payroll tax extension, keeping expanded unemployment benefits from expiring, and various other unresolved tax issues. But the conflicting reports about what is stopping efforts are raising the blood pressure of lawmakers--and are raising the possibility that the budget might get combined with the payroll tax cut as one massive year-end deal.
The House is expected to vote on a GOP proposal to extend the payroll tax cut while also forcing an administration decision about the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. Whatever its chances in the House, Obama has already vowed to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
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