Enjoy the payroll tax break while it lasts

Last week, after a needlessly-contentious process, Congress approved a two-month extension of the payroll tax break. As part of the agreement, a conference committee will try to come up with an agreement to extend the cut through the end of 2012.

I’ve been rather pessimistic about the likelihood of success, and yesterday, the odds got worse.

The Senate Republican leader announced Friday that he had chosen three of his colleagues to try to thrash out a bipartisan deal on payroll taxes, unemployment benefits and Medicare.

The three Republican senators will join four Democratic senators and 13 House members on a conference committee wrestling with the issues, which tied the Senate in knots for more than two months.

The newly named Republican conferees are Senators Jon Kyl of Arizona, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho and John Barrasso of Wyoming.

These aren’t three senators you’d appoint to a conference committee if you want to be constructive. These are three senators you’d appoint to a conference committee if you want to be destructive.

Kyl, for example, was instrumental in sabotaging the super-committee process, and was described by Democratic negotiators as “walking napalm.” Crapo and Barrasso, meanwhile, are two far-right senators who’ve never demonstrated any willingness to accept concessions on anything.

What’s more, note that the House GOP leadership has already announced its conferees, most of whom have already said they don’t want a payroll-cut extension no matter what concessions Democrats are willing to make.

The conference committee will technically have until March 1, when the cut expires, but as a practical matter, they’ll have to wrap up a deal well before then, giving both chambers a chance to debate and vote on an agreement.

Of course, the likelihood of there even being an agreement now borders on fanciful. Republican participants won’t be willing to compromise, and most of them don’t fear failure since they oppose tax breaks for the middle class on principle.

What about the risk of being blamed? Remember, as far as GOP leaders are concerned, the process itself offers cover. Instead of last week, when House Republicans became the clear villains, when the conference committee struggles to come up with a bipartisan solution, the party will find it easier to spread the blame around.

“It’s not our fault,” GOP leaders will say. “We tried to work with Democrats on a deal, but one didn’t come together. Oh well.”

For Republicans, it’s the best of all possible worlds: middle-class taxes would go up, the economy would take a hit, public disgust for Washington would be renewed, and the media would feel obligated to say “both sides” failed to reach an agreement.