Sen. McConnell And The Politicization Of The Payroll Tax

December 19, 2011 6:08 pm ET — Kate Conway

Sen. Mitch McConnell

There's perhaps no greater sign of how terribly the fight over the payroll tax cut extension has been politicized than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) behavior over the weekend.

On Saturday, ignoring a politically untenable proposal out of the House of Representatives (which coupled a yearlong extension to a number of controversial measures, including forcing a decision on the Keystone pipeline, attacking the health care law, cutting the length of jobless benefits, and blocking an EPA rule on toxic pollutants) the Senate passed a bipartisan compromise bill 89 - 10. If the House approves the package, the payroll tax cut will be extended for two months and the president will have to make a decision to approve or reject the Keystone pipeline within 60 days. Sen. McConnell co-sponsored the proposal along with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and McConnell — along with 38 of his 45 voting Republican colleagues — voted "yes."

Yet sometime since the passage of the Senate bill — perhaps after learning that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), under pressure from his far-right caucus, has said he'll reject the Senate's solution — McConnell has flipped on the deal he brokered.

During an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," Boehner said the House and Senate should work out a year-long extension of the payroll cut. The House has already approved such a measure.

Now McConnell is supporting such negotiations, and the two GOP leaders are trying to up the stakes for President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats in the tax battle.

Of course the House and Senate should have worked out a year-long extension. But, per usual, the GOP took what could've been a relatively straightforward bipartisan initiative and rendered it a political impossibility by attaching controversial and unrelated measures. As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein points out, the Senate's two-month bill is far from the ideal way to do business — no one's saying it represents the most desirable outcome of this fight — but it's become the only way to get business done, thanks to House Republicans:

Making tax policy two months at a time is no way to make tax policy. But House Republicans are the reason the Senate was opting for a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut. If they agreed to a clean, year-long extension of the payroll tax cut, the bill could pass in the next 10 minutes. Instead, they've opted to tie it to the Keystone XL Pipeline. And as bad as it is to make tax policy in two-month increments, it's even worse to make controversial energy and environmental decisions using unrelated tax-policy measures -- and their deadlines -- as cover.

It's unfortunate, and telling, that the appearance of bipartisanship and compromise from Sen. McConnell was so quickly undermined by the current political atmosphere.