By CHAD ABSHIRE
Capitol Hill negotiators Thursday officially unveiled hard-fought compromise legislation to prevent 160 million workers from getting slapped with a payroll tax hike, but it ran into turbulence in the Senate, where Republicans withheld support and several Democrats attacked it.
In a speech on the Senate floor yesterday, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) critiqued two political proposals that, he said in a press release, would drive the country deeper into debt without solving long-term fiscal problems.
“There is not a person in West Virginia who can understand why politics is trumping our future fiscal stability,” Manchin said. “I don’t think there’s a person in America who understands why, in Washington, we can’t come together on a long-term fix to our problems.
“And for the life of me, I cannot imagine why our elected leaders - from both sides of the aisle - are continuing to play political football with our spending, our debt and our children’s futures. I didn’t come here to put the next generation into more debt. I came here to get them out of it.”
Not only would the measure prevent 160 million workers from a payroll tax hike, it would also extend jobless benefits and is a top election-year priority for President Barack Obama.
The legislation, generally, won backing from his Democratic allies in Congress. But it’s getting only grudging support from House Republicans and even less from Obama’s GOP rivals in the Senate, where party negotiators shunned the measure and its $89 billion impact on the budget deficit over the coming decade.
“The typical American family will still see an extra $40 in every paycheck, keeping nearly $1,000 of their hard-earned money this year,” Obama said in a statement. “And millions of Americans who are out pounding the pavement looking for new work to support their families will still be able to depend on the vital lifeline of unemployment insurance.”
But support in the Senate, where Democrats control 53 votes, seemed soft. It will take 60 votes to advance the measure, and Democratic vote counters braced for defections during voting, expected Friday. They also worried that Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wasn’t rounding up Republican votes.
Meanwhile, in the House, the top Republican said the $143 billion measure won’t do anything to help the economy.
“Let’s be honest, this is an economic relief package, not a bill that’s going to grow the economy and create jobs,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.
But after losing a fight over the legislation at the end of last year, Republicans were determined to clear it off of the political agenda and focus voters on Obama’s record rather than their battles with him.
“It was impossible to break through on the politics,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said.
Several Democrats besides Manchin also came out publicly against the bill and others have privately signaled they’re likely “nay” votes.
One noteworthy name was Sen. Tom Harkin, who came out in “vehement opposition” to the measure over cuts to Obama’s health care law and the reduction in a payroll tax that’s dedicated to paying Social Security benefits. Deficit spending would make up for the lost revenue, but that was little solace to the Iowa liberal.
“Make no mistake about it, this is the beginning of the end of the sanctity of Social Security,” Harkin said. “The very real risk is that Social Security will become just another program to be paid for with deficit spending, and then in the future, perhaps raided to help reduce the deficit.”
Manchin pointed out his opposition to a policy that, according his press release, has failed to create jobs, will jeopardize Social Security and put the nation deeper in debt.
“This Congress has voted twice since I’ve been here to tell Americans that they didn’t have to meet their obligations to Social Security,” Manchin said. “But as I warned this fall, along with my dear friend Senator Mark Kirk, now we’re talking about extending this policy indefinitely - because once something like this is enacted, even an act of Congress can’t reverse it.
“It takes an act of God.”
The legislation would extend through the end of the year a two percent cut in payroll taxes that would fatten a typical bimonthly paycheck by $40. It also would renew jobless benefits that deliver about $300 a week to people out of work for more than six months.
It would also head off a steep cut in reimbursements for physicians who treat Medicare patients, at a cost of $18 billion, financed in part by cuts to a fund created under Obama’s 2010 health care law that awards grants for preventive care and by curbs on Medicaid payments to hospitals that care for a disproportionate share of uninsured patients.
As for the President’s budget proposal, Manchin pointed out that the plan increases the debt by an additional $6.7 trillion over the next decade, that the budget is never once balanced in that period and that it focuses on the wrong priorities, especially when it comes to energy.
“This is not the first time I’ve shared my concerns about this country going down the wrong fiscal track. And I can already hear some folks say: ‘Oh, there goes Joe Manchin again, blaming President Obama.’ Well, let me tell you, I’m a proud Democrat, but I’m a West Virginian and American first, and I would stand up and speak my mind whether our President is a Democrat or a Republican,” Manchin said. “I’m trying to be as understanding and respectful as possible in my critique - but what we’re doing just doesn’t make any sense to me, and I certainly can’t in good conscience try to tell the people of West Virginia any different.”
Manchin reiterated his ongoing and vocal support for moving forward with the recommendations of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission, saying that while it “might not be perfect…it has more support from both sides of the aisle than anything else I’ve seen since I got here.”
“If we are going to address our fiscal nightmare and stop digging a deeper debt hole, we must have meaningful tax reform that not only ensures that everybody pays their fair share, but that also strengthens our economy and creates jobs,” Manchin said.
“I know that going back home and saying we voted for tax cuts is popular, but this is not a tax cut - this is a Social Security cut. Plain and simple,” Manchin said. “And knowing that we add 10,000 new beneficiaries a day, and knowing that last year Social Security took in less than it paid out - how does that make any sense?”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.