As 2011 draws to a close, nobody knows whether the payroll tax holiday will continue for millions of Americans or if jobless benefits will end for millions more. While the public sweats economic stagnation and unemployment, Congress is going home for the holidays with those critical pieces of the public's business undone.
But this time it's not partisan warfare that's to blame for Washington's tiresome dysfunction. The fault lies with congressional Republicans. They're at war with themselves.
Senate Democrats and Republicans compromised Saturday, voting 89 to 10 to extend the payroll tax cut and federal unemployment benefits for two months. That provided breathing room to continue working toward a one-year deal. Although resolution of these issues is long overdue, even this glimpse of pragmatic bipartisanship is welcome.
So what did House Republicans do? They blew up the deal yesterday, bowing to the party's most radical, compromise-averse contingent, which refused to go along with the two-month extension. They voted instead to request a conference committee to resolve the differences between that bill and one the House passed Dec. 13. Many Republicans initially opposed continuing the tax cut and jobless benefits, but those in the House now insist they'll accept nothing less than a full year's extension.
Extending the temporary payroll tax cut from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent for another year would be an unacceptable drain on Social Security's troubled finances. It should be allowed to lapse.
But it would be unconscionable to end federal extensions of unemployment benefits. They spell the difference between 26 weeks of checks and a maximum of 99 weeks. With millions mired in long-term joblessness, it's also no time to cut benefits to 79 weeks and allow states to tie the checks to punitive requirements, such as tests for illegal drugs, as the House bill would do.
Unfortunately, a deal to resolve these issues for a full year has been elusive because there is no agreement on how to pay the potential $180-billion cost. Democrats pushed for an income-tax surcharge on people earning more than $1 million a year. Republicans prefer a pay freeze and higher pension contributions for federal employees.
So House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is once again on the hot seat, with his own caucus stoking the flames. His job is to lead the House Republican majority, which makes it his responsiblity to end the paralysis. He should take on his recalcitrant members, make it clear they won't get everything they want and, if they refuse to compromise, make a deal with Democrats.
He hasn't been willing to do that. So he's ending the year just where he was six months ago when the fight was over raising the debt ceiling: in a standoff with Senate Democrats and the White House and with his most conservative members in revolt. House Republicans have been rendered functionally leaderless.