US President Barack Obama doubled down Tuesday in a pre-Christmas duel over taxes with Republicans, warning that political “brinksmanship” could put the fragile US economic recovery at risk.
After a miserable year being thwarted by his foes on Capitol Hill, Obama turned the tables when the Republican-led House blocked a bipartisan Senate compromise to extend a middle class payroll tax holiday for two months.
“Let’s not play brinksmanship, the American people are weary of it, they are tired of it… I am calling on the speaker and the House Republican leadership to bring the Senate bill up for a vote,” Obama said.
Obama’s intervention, squeezing his congressional foes at holiday time, whipped up a public test of political will as both sides stake out ground ahead of his 2012 reelection fight.
House Republicans appeared stuck in a corner, partly of their own making, facing criticism from fellow party members in the Senate as polls suggest the showdown may be boosting Obama’s political fortunes.
If the tax holiday is not extended by January 1, payroll deductions will go up from 4.2 percent to 6.2 percent and Americans stand to lose an average of $1,000 from their paychecks over the year.
House Republicans appear to face the unpalatable political prospect of climbing down and accepting the Senate compromise or being blamed by Obama for taxes going up on 160 million Americans next year.
Even a creative face-saving solution typical of the arcane congressional procedure that sometimes unpicks end-of-year showdowns would allow Obama to claim a political victory as he heads into his reelection year.
The Republican-controlled House did not specifically vote down a Senate plan to extend the payroll tax holiday for two months, but voted 229 to 193 to appoint negotiators to frame a new joint bill with the Democratic-led Senate.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to bring his chamber back from the Christmas and New Year break to hold talks on the measure, believing the row was solved when the compromised plan passed 89-10 on Saturday.
House Republican leaders now say that two months is insufficient and back Obama’s initial call for a year-long extension.
“I need the president to help out, all right?” Republican House Speaker Boehner shouted at a press conference, drawing cheers from his lawmakers.
Republicans have denied that Boehner originally signed off on the Senate compromise but was forced to backtrack because of a revolt among ultraconservative Tea Party members of his caucus.
Obama was in no mood to ease the pressure on his foe.
“Right now, the recovery is fragile but it is moving in the right direction,” Obama said.
The impasse “could have effects not only on families but on the economy as a whole,” the president added.
But Boehner wrote to Obama to ask him to persuade Reid to appoint negotiators to reconcile differing Senate and House approaches.
“There are still 11 days before the end of the year, and with so many Americans struggling, there is no reason they should be wasted,” said Boehner.
There were also signs that some Republicans believe their side may have sabotaged their own case in the run-up to Christmas with the showdown.
“It is harming the Republican Party. It is harming the view, if it’s possible anymore, of the American people about Congress,” Republican Senator John McCain said on CNN.
“We’ve got to get this resolved and with the realization that the payroll tax cut must remain in effect.”
The dispute is disrupting Obama’s plans to join his family on his annual Christmas and New Year vacation in Hawaii. But with such a high-stakes fight raging, the president showed no sign of wanting to leave.
“I know the president wants to see his daughters and his wife,” his spokesman Jay Carney said, conjuring up the politically emotive image of Obama missing Christmas to stay home to fight for the middle class.
If Boehner “feels that the last act of the Republicans in the House in 2011 is to raise taxes… he can take that approach,” Carney said.
The months-long showdown with Republicans who have blocked most of Obama’s job-creating agenda also appeared to benefit the president’s standing.
In a new CNN poll, Obama’s approval rating jumped five percentage points over the last month, to 49 percent, nearly the 50 percent barrier crucial to presidents as they approach reelection.
Only 16 percent of those asked approved of the job Congress was doing.