Obama seeks to leverage $1 trillion spending bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s Democratic allies in the Senate are using a critical year-end spending bill as political leverage to try to force Republicans to negotiate bipartisan legislation to extend payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits due to expire at the end of the year.

An administration official said the president called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., over the weekend and urged him to hold up the massive $1 trillion-plus spending package until an agreement is reached on the tax cuts and the unemployment benefits.

Republicans controlling the House have instead charted their own course on the payroll tax, rolling it together with a provision to speed permitting of the controversial proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline and other provisions favored by Republicans.

The White House is concerned that if the spending bill were to pass, House GOP leaders could orchestrate House passage of a GOP-tilting version of the payroll tax and jobless benefits legislation that would be unacceptable to Obama and Senate Democrats — but leave them in a political pickle — and then leave Washington. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal administration strategy.

“What Congress can’t do is make vague promises, Republicans in Congress make vague promises about a payroll tax cut and then finish its business, the business it has to get done — the spending bill — and then leave town and leave the American middle class holding the bag,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. “We’re just not going to let that happen.”

“They’re wasting time catering to the tea party folks over there when they should be working with us on a bipartisan package that can pass both Houses,” Reid said of the House GOP.

The spending bill had been gaining bipartisan support in a combative Congress. But Reid’s White House-backed maneuvering could jeopardize efforts to approve new spending before the current government funding runs out this weekend. That means lawmakers could be faced with the prospect of passing a stopgap measure to keep the federal government operating — or risk a partial government shutdown on Saturday.

Carney said that Congress has already passed a number of stopgap spending bills and passing another one wouldn’t be a problem. “This isn’t about a shutdown,” he said.

But Carney labored to avoid directly saying that Obama and Reid linked the massive year-end spending bill to the payroll tax holiday. Pushed repeatedly on that Washington tactic, Carney ultimately said Obama will “do what he needs to do” to get the tax cut and unemployment insurance extended.

Lawmakers had by Monday reached agreement on most issues on the $1 trillion spending bill, which cuts agency budgets but drops many policy provisions sought by GOP conservatives. It chips away at the Pentagon budget, foreign aid and environmental spending but boosts funding for veterans programs and modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

“I am hopeful that the Senate leaders will come to their senses, allow members to sign this report and move forward. There is no reason to hold this bill,” said Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.

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