Congress was headed toward a holiday-season partisan standoff over an effort to pass core elements of President Barack Obama's jobs program — renewal of payroll tax cuts and long-term unemployment benefits — that Republican and Democratic leaders alike say they support.
A House vote was set for Tuesday to seek negotiations on a compromise to renew the payroll tax cuts through 2012, a rejection of the bipartisan two-month extension that cleared the Senate over the weekend.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused House Speaker John Boehner of risking a tax increase for millions "just because a few angry tea partyers raised their voices." The Nevada Democrat ruled out new negotiations until the two-month measure is enacted.
It was the latest and likely the last such partisan confrontation in a year of divided government that brought the Treasury to the brink of a first-ever default last summer, and more than once pushed the vast federal establishment to the edge of a partial shutdown.
This time, unlike the others, Republican divisions were prominently on display.
The two-month measure that cleared the Senate, 89-10, on Saturday had the full support of the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who also told reporters he was optimistic the House would sign on. Senate negotiators had tried to agree on a compromise to cover a full year, but were unable to come up with enough savings to offset the cost and prevent deficits from rising.
The two-month extension was a fallback, and officials say that when McConnell personally informed Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of the deal at a private meeting, they said they would check with their rank and file.
But on Saturday, restive House conservatives — including newcomers supported by the small government tea party movement — made clear during a telephone conference call that they were unhappy with the measure.
"I've never seen us so unified," Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, said as he left a two-hour, closed-door meeting Monday night where Republicans firmed up their plans.
Boehner said extending the payroll tax cuts for two months rather than a year would create uncertainty among employers.
"It's time to stop the nonsense. We can resolve these differences and we can do it in a way that provides certainty for job creators and others," Boehner said.
But House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Republicans were "walking away from a tax cut." And Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a member of the party leadership, accused Boehner of "claiming to support something and then sending it to a legislative graveyard where it never sees the light of day."
Not surprisingly, the White House weighed in on the side of Obama's Democratic allies.
Spokesman Jay Carney said Boehner was for the two-month stopgap bill "before he was against it" — a claim that the House speaker flatly denied.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Carney added, "It is not our job to negotiate between him and Senate Republicans."
The Senate-passed bill, as well as one that cleared the House last week, also would avert a threatened 27 percent cut in payments to doctors who treat patients under the Medicare health care program serving the elderly.
Democrats gleefully distributed evidence of Republican disagreement, including comments from Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Richard Lugar of Indiana and others urging the House to approve the two-month measure.
But first-term House Republicans were unmoved.
"I don't care about political implications" of letting taxes go up Jan. 1 for 160 million Americans, said Rep. Tom Reed of New York. "We will stay here as long as it takes in order to do what's right for the American people. That means working on Christmas, New Year's and other days. It's time to get the job done."
Professing a lack of concern about higher taxes was not a widely held position inside the party leadership, though. For both parties, the political implications seemed to matter hugely.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced it was sending automated phone calls into households in 20 targeted Republican-held districts demanding that lawmakers support the two-month extension, lest taxes go up.
Not to be outdone, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued a statement headlined "Vacation, All House Dems Ever Wanted" and claiming that Democrats wanted to raise taxes on the middle class.
It was unclear how much attention the political maneuvering would draw in a nation where consumers were in the final shopping countdown toward Christmas and the next national election was nearly a year away.
Associated Press writers David Espo, Alan Fram and Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.