Who would have thought Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives would give President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party such a lovely holiday gift even as they hand American workers a lump of coal? It's enough to warm the cockles of your heart, even as it fries your brain.
Unless Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, can work a miracle between now and Dec. 31, Democrats will start the 2012 election year able to blame the GOP for the following:
— The Social Security payroll tax on American workers will revert to its pre-2009 rate of 6.2 percent. That effectively means a 2 percent tax increase for 160 million American workers. Based on 2010 median income levels, that means $21.62 less in the weekly paycheck for Missouri workers and $27.73 a week less in Illinois. The party that hates tax increases for millionaires just enabled a tax increase for everyone.
— The dwindling number of doctors who treat Medicare patients will be reimbursed 27 percent less. That could make it harder for older Americans to find a doctor willing to treat them.
— More than 3 million of the 14 million Americans currently out of work will lose unemployment insurance benefits. The average national weekly unemployment check is $295.
Before adjourning for the holidays, the Senate voted 89-11 to continue these benefits until Feb. 29, paying for the $33 billion package with an increase in the fees for federal mortgage insurance. Senate leaders in both parties thought they had a deal with the GOP leaders of the House, but Boehner underestimated the lemmings in his caucus.
The House is insisting on a one-year extension, at a price of $180 billion, that would be paid for with policy changes dear to the heart of the party's right wing.
Boehner is calling for a conference committee to work out disagreements.
One can never be sure, but Senate Democrats are not so inept as to fall for this gimmick. Either Boehner will find a parliamentary trick to save face, or the Democrats will let this ride until Jan. 24, when Obama can use the State of the Union speech to beat the GOP over the head for its callousness.
All of this is a surprise ending to a year of gridlock that time and again saw ideology get in the way of compromise. The surprise is that the Republicans bungled it so badly. Unlike debt-ceiling and deficit-reduction negotiations, this time Obama didn't have to compromise. He had the support of enough Senate Republicans who were worried about reelection to force the House's hand.
"It is harming the Republican Party," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on CNN. "It is harming the view, if it's possible anymore, of the American people about Congress."
Republicans may try to cast this as an "impasse," but the stark reality is that when people open their paychecks in January and find less money, they're going to look around for someone to blame.
It should not be lost here that the disagreement is over a two-month extension or a one-year extension. It is not a permanent solution. It does not address the deficit. Or job creation. Or health care reimbursements. Or tax fairness.
That sort of statesmanship seems beyond the capabilities of this Congress.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH