WASHINGTON -- Careening toward a politically toxic tax hike, President Barack Obama implored House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday to support a two-month stopgap measure until a longer deal could be struck early next year, calling it the only real way out of a mess that is threatening the paychecks of 160 million workers and isolating House Republicans.
In a weary Washington, the outreach accomplished little. All sides seemed to end the day where they began, with heavy political and economic consequences at stake.
Boehner remained insistent on a full-year extension of the existing payroll tax cut before Jan. 1, urging Obama to haul Senate Democrats back to town to talk to his chosen negotiators. "Let's get this done today," Boehner told Obama, according to a speaker's aide, who required anonymity to characterize a private conversation.
But the Capitol was emptying out fast, and the Senate showed no inclination to return, having already passed a bipartisan two-month tax cut it thought had settled the matter. For taxpayers, and for an economy starting to show some life again, the standoff was all holiday gloom.
Barring any action by Congress, Social Security payroll taxes will go up almost $20 a week for a worker making a $50,000 salary -- that's $40 less for a typical paycheck or $1,000 over the whole year. Almost 2 million people would lose unemployment benefits as well.
The political risks seemed only to deepen, too, particularly for House Republicans. They appeared poised to take the biggest blame for a tax increase even while pushing for a deeper one.
The reliably conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal blasted both Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader, for how they handled the matter. "The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass," the paper's editorial said.
The latest fight spilled into the lap of Republican candidates running for president. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich chastised Congress, particularly the Senate, for failing to extend the 2 percentage-point tax cut for a full year. "They can't figure out how to pass a one-year extension, so the Senate leaves town?" Gingrich remarked while campaigning in Iowa. "It's an absurd dereliction of duty."