President Obama spoke briefly from the White House briefing room this afternoon, continuing to press Congress to approve an extension of the payroll tax break. Here’s the clip:

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What stood out for me as the president’s willingness to openly mock congressional Republicans for their reluctance. Obama put it this way:

“Now, I know many Republicans have sworn an oath never to raise taxes as long as they live. How can it be that the only time there’s a catch is when it comes to raising taxes on middle class families? How can you fight tooth and nail to protect high-end tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and yet barely lift a finger to prevent taxes going up for 160 million Americans who really need the help? It doesn’t make sense.

“Now, the good news is I think the American people’s voices are starting to get through in this time. I know that last week Speaker Boehner said this tax cut helps the economy because it allows every working American to keep more of their money. I know that over the weekend Senate Republican leaders said we shouldn’t raise taxing on working people going into next year. I couldn’t agree more, and I hope that the rest of their Republican colleagues come around and join Democrats to pass these tax cuts and put money back into the pockets of working Americans.

“Now, some Republicans who have pushed back against the idea of extending this payroll tax cut have said, ‘We’ve got to pay for these tax cuts.’ I’d just point out that they haven’t always felt that way. Over the last decade they didn’t feel the need to pay for massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which is one of the reasons we face such large deficits.

“Indeed, when the Republicans took over the House at the beginning of this year, they explicitly changed the rules to say that tax cuts don’t have to be paid for. So forgive me a little bit of confusion when I hear folks insisting on tax cuts being paid for.”

In theory, this should spark some worthwhile conversation. Indeed, the questions the president posed need not be rhetorical: why are Republicans suddenly opposed to a middle-class tax break? Why are they willing to fight for high-end tax breaks and willing to kill the payroll tax break? Why did GOP officials change their mind about tax cuts being paid for (and why will they change their mind again next year)?

These aren’t just random talking points; they’re fairly important parts of an ongoing policy dispute. If Republicans have credible answers to these questions, I suspect it’d advance the debate if we heard them.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.