February 17, 2012
Negotiators struck a deal late on February 15 to extend a payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits and Medicare payments to physicians through the end of 2012. However, the timing of votes on the measure remains uncertain as tax writers continue work on the legislative text. With lawmakers preparing to leave town for a week-long Presidents’ Day recess, leaders of both parties remained unwillingly to commit to holding votes within the next two days.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on February 16 addressed the issue from the Senate floor, telling members that the situation was still very fluid. “We will notify all members when the conference report is scheduled in the House and we will do it over here as quickly as we can,” stated Reid. “We’re going to see if things can be expedited, but it appears that we will be in at least for tomorrow. I hope we won’t be in any longer than that, but it all depends on when the House completes the work on the conference report. That’s not scheduled yet.”
Under House rules, lawmakers are allowed three days to review a bill before a vote can be held. During his daily briefing with the press, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, deflected questions over whether he would seek to waive the rule, telling reporters instead that technical corrections to the measure were still needed. Once the conference report comes to the floor for a vote, it will face a straight up and down vote in both chambers as amendments are not allowed.
Lead negotiators House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich, and Senate Finance Committee Max Baucus, D-Mont., nailed down the agreement near midnight, nearly missing the deadline for getting a bill prepared in time for a Saturday vote. The final sticking point of how to pay for unemployment benefits and the Medicare “doc fix ” was resolved by deciding to allow sales of radio spectrum licenses, reducing new government employee pension contributions and cutting some spending programs in the new health reform law.
The agreement provides that the Social Security tax for employees would remain at a reduced rate of 4.2 percent through December 2012, unemployment benefits would be scaled back in three stages, and Medicare reimbursements would not face a 27-percent payment reduction for another 10 months. In return for a reduction in UI benefits, from 93 weeks to 63 weeks in most states, Republicans dropped their demand that all recipients undergo drug testing and enroll in a GED program.