Why Boehner wants a conference committee

So far, we’ve seen the payroll tax-break fight play out in a variety of steps. The first was House Republicans passing a ridiculous, right-wing extension of the tax policy, filled with extremist goodies that necessarily made the bill a non-starter. The second was the Senate approving a temporary, bipartisan compromise.

The third, of course, came yesterday when House Republicans rejected the bipartisan compromise and said they wanted a conference committee to reconcile the two bills.

It’s quickly looking like the conference committee itself is at the heart of the GOP strategy, such as it is. It’s worth taking a moment to consider why.

Yesterday, Major Garrett reported House Republicans might approve the Senate agreement if Senate Democrats agreed to a conference committee on “a full, one-year payroll tax extension with spending cut offsets by Feb. 1.” Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) effectively offered House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that deal: pass the bipartisan deal and policymakers can get to work on “negotiations on a longer extension.”

Time will tell if the House GOP can accept this — at this point, it’s tough to guess — but what’s with all this conference-committee talk?

To offer a quick refresher since they’ve become quite rare in recent years, conference committees have historically been used to bridge the gap between similar-but-distinct versions of the same bill that have already passed the House and Senate. It works a bit like the recently-disbanded “super committee” — members of both parties and both chambers work out a bill that’s then sent to the floors for congressional approval. In the case of the payroll-cut policy, Boehner figures there are two competing versions, so he wants a conference committee to work it out.

As a practical matter — the policy expires in 10 days — sending the policy to a conference committee for an extended debate is killing the bill. But there’s more to it than that. Referencing a piece from Sarah Binder, Ezra Klein had a good take on this earlier.

[I]nsisting on a conference committee serves three purposes for Boehner. First, it offloads the compromises on a coalition of negotiators who come from different wings of the House Republicans. That protects Boehner in the final agreement. Second, it creates a procedural argument that distracts from the underlying disagreement: House Republicans won’t want to extend the payroll tax cut except in the absence of extraordinary policy concessions, like the immediate greenlighting of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Third, it lets Boehner spend some time standing up to the Senate and the president who are trying to rush a compromise through the House — a move that perhaps gives him some political capital he can spend on the ultimate compromise, as he’ll have proven to House Republicans that he didn’t capitulate at the first sign of pressure.

Ultimately, the conference committee would inevitably fail, just as every recent bipartisan committee has failed, and for the same reasons — Republicans don’t want to compromise.

And when it did, Boehner could have an excuse to avoid responsibility, and the media would feel obligated to tell the public that “both sides” failed to reach an acceptable compromise. Since Republicans don’t want to extend the payroll tax break anyway, it’s the best of all possible worlds — middle-class taxes would go up, the economy would get worse, and Republicans would share the blame with Democrats.