House speaker willing to cut recess short

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Although lawmakers are scrambling to exit Washington this week for their August recess, Speaker John Boehner and other top House Republicans say they will “immediately call the House back into session” if the Senate takes action regarding the “threat” posed by the defense sequester and potential expiration of all the George W. Bush-era tax cuts.

But the gesture is, in reality, a less-than-genuine kickoff to the political messaging that House Republicans intend to deliver in their back-home campaigning over the next weeks--that Democrats are to blame for the congressional stalemate on these items.

“By the end of this week, the Republican-led House will have acted to eliminate both threats,” states a letter sent by Boehner and other House Republicans on Wednesday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “The Democratic-controlled Senate must follow suit.”

“In the event the Senate takes action, we stand ready to bring the House back into session for the purpose of enacting solutions,” the letter declares.

But, in fact, the Senate has already acted on its own tax-cut extension--which the GOP-controlled House is likely to defeat by the end of this week while passing its own alternative. And no two-chamber deal has been reached on dealing with the looming defense-sequestration cuts agreed upon last year.

Those details, however, are glossed over in the letter from Boehner and other House GOP leaders. Instead, they portray Republicans as the party in Washington that has acted on both items, while Senate Democrats have not.

There was no immediate response from Reid’s office.

Boehner explained this strategy during a closed-door meeting on Wednesday morning with fellow House Republicans.

According to excerpts of his remarks provided by his office, Boehner said, “The tax bill passed by Senate Democrats--which House Democrats will offer as an amendment this week--does nothing to stop the small-business tax hike. And the House acted in May to replace the defense sequester with responsible spending cuts and reforms, while the Senate and president have done nothing.

“This morning we sent a letter to Harry Reid that pulls all this together,” Boehner added. “Translation: We’re putting this right at your doorstep. You own it.  If Harry Reid,[House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama want to own a small-business tax hike and a devastating cut to our national defense, they are now set up perfectly to do so.”   

With an eye toward the November elections, the GOP-led House is expected to start debate as early as Wednesday and proceed to a vote before leaving town on Friday on the Republican tax plan that would extend the Bush-era rate cuts set to expire at the end of the year for all taxpayers--including the wealthiest Americans.

The Senate has already defeated that GOP alternative, and last week passed a plan to extend the tax cuts on incomes under $250,000 for a couple and $200,000 for an individual, but not for wealthier Americans. Among other objections, Republicans have equated the Democratic plan as a tax hike on small businesses, and the wrong thing to do in a sputtering economy, but Democrats say that tax cuts at the high end do not create jobs.

Unless the White House and Congress can reach agreement on how to avoid the defense sequestrations cuts, the military faces a reduction of about $600 billion over the next 10 years, starting with $55 billion in January, and nondefense programs would also be cut by $600 billion. The reductions are a result of last year’s failure of the so-called budget super committee to reach an agreement on how to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

But for both parties, concerns about the upcoming cuts extend beyond national-security worries; they also are concerned about the effects on federal contracting, jobs, and the economy. House Republicans have proposed a defense-spending plan that would pay for a sequestration repeal with cuts to food stamps, Medicaid, and other domestic programs. However, the White House and congressional Democrats are insisting instead that the cuts must also be replaced with more tax revenue and the closing of tax loopholes, a plan that Republicans say would be economically damaging.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters on Wednesday at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor that House Republicans have offered a better plan than the automatic sequester cuts to the military, and that it had never been his belief that the power to make such decisions rested with the super committee, not with “the people.”

“That does not mean the Congress cannot act to find [the required] cuts, as well,” he said.
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