Under pressure, Republicans concede on unemployment benefits and doc fix

Part of the reason Republicans would be better served to stick to principle is that they rarely, if ever, manage to out-maneuver Democrats at the political game. No better evidence of this exists than the manner in which the president continues to school GOPers on the payroll tax cut extension.

The payroll tax cut is one tax cut progressives can really get behind. Why? Even workers among the nearly half of Americans who pay “no taxes” still contribute to Social Security. It’s the one way they’re still somewhat invested; lessen or eliminate that contribution and they have no reason to worry about the insolvency of Social Security. After all, they’re not paying for it in any way — not even through income taxes that go to the general fund that will pay out benefits when Social Security goes bust. In other words, the payroll tax cut extension — and, what progressives probably ultimately want, the elimination of the payroll tax — makes redistribution of wealth that much easier.

So, the president started carping for the payroll tax cut extension — and Republicans, many of whom have pledged not to raise taxes, had to support the cut. They should have taken the time to explain that “the payroll tax cut” is not a proper tax cut, but they lost the rhetorical battle before they even began to fight the policy battle.

Initially, they at least insisted that the cut be paid for — but, eventually, they caved on even that, proposing a clean payroll tax cut extension. Theoretically, that was supposed to force Democrats to temporarily forgo their obsession with other types of spending. Republicans would pass the clean extension and Democrats would have to either go along with it or allow Republicans to accuse them of hiking taxes. Later, they’d all take up the issues of unemployment insurance and the Medicare doc fix — but the three issues would no longer have to be bundled into one.

It doesn’t look like that’s what’s going to happen, though:

Congressional negotiators reached a tentative agreement Tuesday to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits while avoiding a fee cut for Medicare doctors, according to multiple legislators and aides. …

The agreement covers all three measures — the payroll tax cut, the unemployment benefits extension, and the so-called “doc fix” — for the rest of 2012. The latter two measures — costing a combined $50 billion — will be paid for, aides said.

Possible funding sources to pay for the latter two measures include savings from broadband spectrum sales of about $13 billion, increased pension contributions by federal employees of about $16 billion, and cuts to Medicare hospital and specialist fees that would not affect patients, according to the congressional aides.

Under the terms of the deal, the maximum time an unemployed person can receive benefits will drop from 99 to 73 weeks, according to a GOP aide and a Democratic aide close to the discussions. The maximum length of time for people in states with an average unemployment rate will drop to 63 weeks.

Certainly, I understand why Republicans would rather not debate the payroll tax cut extension over and over again: Given the president’s framing of the extension as “a middle class tax cut,” it doesn’t play well for Republicans to oppose it. The answer, though, would have been to reframe the issue, not to allow the president to drag them into nonsensical battles they’re destined to lose. When the president wants the people’s support, he takes his case to them. Congress is poised to do that even more effectively than he does; the president can’t be all across the country at one time, but the GOP majority in Congress can.

Once again, Republicans should have stuck to principle.

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