Republicans seek support for a payroll tax plan

WASHINGTON (AP) — Courting disaffected conservatives, House Republican leaders offered Friday to overturn a pair of Obama administration environmental policies and avert a deep cut in payments to doctors treating Medicare patients as part of legislation renewing a Social Security payroll tax cut through 2012.

The tax cut, due to expire on Dec. 31, “hasn’t stimulated the economy at all,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, one of several Republicans who emerged from a closed-door meeting and spoke unfavorably about the proposed extension at the heart of President Barack Obama’s jobs program.

“But over the long term, it does add to our deficit,” he added.

A one-year extension would cost an estimated $120 billion. The expense would be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, but Republican critics noted the savings would take a decade to materialize fully, while the cut itself would last for only one year.

Despite the misgivings, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other Republican leaders are committed to passing the legislation, fearing political fallout if payroll taxes rise on Jan. 1 on 160 million wage-earners.

The situation is similar in the Senate, where 26 of 46 Republicans voted Thursday night against a leadership-backed plan to renew the payroll tax cuts.

Officials said that to sweeten the measure for conservatives, House Republican leaders informed lawmakers they are prepared to add a provision averting a 27 percent cut in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients, effective Jan. 1. The cost is about $38 billion over two years.

In addition, officials said Boehner and the leadership suggested including a provision that delays and eases a proposed Environmental Protection Agency requirement for new pollution regulations on industrial boilers and incinerators. The House approved legislation along the same lines in October, with the backing of 41 Democrats.

The EPA announced during the day it had agreed to ease the rules, although the change seemed unlikely to satisfy critics.

Another provision that would be added to the payroll tax bill is designed to speed construction of a proposed Keystone XL pipeline that pits environmentalists on one side, and industry and some labor unions on the other. The 1,700-mile structure would carry as much as 700,000 barrels of oil a day from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Despite a three-year review by federal agencies, Obama announced recently he would not decide whether to grant a construction permit until after the election in November 2012.

Democrats and Obama want to pay for the additional year of payroll tax cuts by imposing a 3.25 percent surcharge on individuals and couples with $1 million in income or more, and are hoping to use the issue to depict Republicans as benefactors of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.

House Republicans are opposed to raising taxes, and the leadership reviewed a list of alternative proposals with the rank and file that officials said had originated with Obama or been embraced by the administration earlier in the year.

Among the options are a pay freeze for federal workers through 2015 and a requirement for them to pay a higher share of their pension costs. Raising the cost of Medicare premiums for the well-to-do is also on the list, as are proposals to charge a fee for mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the sale of spectrum rights now held by the government, and a denial of unemployment benefits or food stamps to million-dollar earners.

“Now is not the time to slam the brakes on the recovery. Right now, it’s time to step on the gas,” Obama said in an appearance at a construction site at which he noted that unemployment last month fell to a 2 1/2-year low of 8.6 percent.

If Congress fails to deliver the legislation to his desk before its scheduled adjournment for the year, “we can all spend Christmas here together,” said the president.

Obama is scheduled to leave on Dec. 17 for a Christmas vacation in Hawaii with his family and friends, spokesman Josh Earnest said. Those plans may be delayed by unfinished business with Congress, as it has been in the past.

Associated Press writers Jim Abrams, Dina Cappiello, Matthew Daly, Ben Feller, Jim Kuhnhenn and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

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