Jan. 18, 2012 – 12:25 p.m.

Boehner: Payroll Tax Cut Battle Was the Right Fight, Wrong Time

Speaker John A. Boehner acknowledged Wednesday that House Republicans picked the wrong time for “the right fight” last month over extending a payroll tax cut package.

“We were picking the right fight,” Boehner said Wednesday of the latest House standoff. “But I would argue we did not pick it at the right time.”

Boehner’s comments came after he met with rank-and-file Republicans, some of whom are still unhappy with how the Speaker handled House Republicans’ resistance to extending the Social Security payroll tax cut for two months, a position the party was forced to abandon.

At the closed-door session with his conference, Boehner addressed lingering second-guessing that has swirled around his handling of the battle last month over extending the payroll tax cut, benefits for the long-term unemployed and reimbursement rates for physicians serving Medicare beneficiaries.

The fight ended with Boehner, R-Ohio, left largely to concede to Senate demands for a two-month extension and drop a call for a full-year extension (HR 3630) the House passed Dec. 13.

The House cleared legislation (PL 112-78) to extend the payroll tax rate — which was reduced to 4.2 percent from 6.2 percent in December 2010 — for two months. The law also maintains through February benefits for people who have been unemployed for more than a half-year and preserves current Medicare physician reimbursement rates, which would have been cut by 27 percent.

In effect, the Speaker conceded that Republicans made the wrong political decision in waging the fight with the Senate after senators left town Dec. 17 for the holiday break.

But Boehner allies pointed out that his actions — including his decision to throw in the cards under heavy pressure — were backed by other GOP leaders and by their eight rank-and-file conferees who are now members of a House-Senate conference committee slated to negotiate a longer-term payroll tax cut extension bill before the end of February.

The meeting of the Republican conference was its first since the year-end retreat on the payroll tax cut. “It was a candid discussion,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. “Boehner acknowledged mistakes [on the payroll tax cut bill]. We agreed that we need to move forward.”

Lawmakers said they expect discussions about the party’s handling of the issue to continue at a three-day retreat for House Republicans that opens in Baltimore on Thursday.

“This is an important week for us. We need to hear each other out,” said first-term Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill. Although he said “I didn’t like” Boehner’s one-way phone call on Dec. 22 in which he informed members of the decision to go along with the Senate on the payroll tax cut extension, he praised Boehner’s overall dealings with GOP members, including the freshmen. “He has been very open to the needs of my district, though we don’t always agree. . . . He does a very good job of listening and leading.”

Boehner allies have noted that some of those who have most pointedly questioned his handling of the payroll bill were the same lawmakers who pushed for the failed, pre-Christmas showdown with the Senate.