Political maneuvering in the payroll tax wars has gotten very complicated very fast. Yesterday the Republican-controlled House passed a payroll tax-cut extension, 234-193, that also included approval of the Keystone XL pipeline (which the president said would be a deal-breaker). House Speaker John Boehner immediately demanded that the Democratic-controlled Senate (which previously rejected its own Democratic and Republican versions of the payroll tax-cut extension, with a majority of Republicans and most Republican leaders voting against both versions) vote on the House-passed bill. Yeah, sure, fine, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. Let's vote on your totally unacceptable bill, and when it fails we can negotiate something that can really pass.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a Senate vote on the House's payroll tax-cut extension, thereby defying both Reid and Boehner. Why? Because McConnell wants to vote first on a bill that will keep the government funded after Dec. 16. That way Senate Republicans can leave town for Christmas break, scotch the payroll-tax-cut extension (which has been nothing but a headache for McConnell), and not give ground on the Keystone pipeline.
Reid knows this, and he also knows that if the government has to shut down on Friday because Congress hasn't acted, blame will likely be leveled on Republican intransigence, as it was in 1995 and 1996. The person most blamed for the mid-1990s shutdowns was then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, and to convey the message that it's 1995 all over again Reid has taken to calling Gingrich the "presumptive Republican nominee." (It says a lot about the peculiar state of Republican politics these days that if you want to torture Republican officeholders all you have to do is call the current front-runner for their party's presidential nomination the "presumptive Republican nominee.")
So Reid insists that no vote be held to avert government shutdown until the Senate votes first on the payroll tax-cut extension. When it fails, Reid will demand that the Republicans cooperate on a more bipartisan version of the payroll tax-cut bill (i.e., one without Keystone pipeline approval and a few other poison pills). Then, and only then, will Reid permit a vote to prevent government shutdown.
Salon's Andrew Leonard thinks this is an "unwinnable" fight for Obama. I disagree. I think Reid can probably maneuver the Republicans into extending the payroll tax cut without forcing Obama's hand on the Keystone pipeline. What may be lost is the millionaire surtax that pays for the payroll tax cut extension. In other words, Congress may grant the payroll tax cut without paying for it. But I don't see that as a serious political loss for Obama. He can always take up the cause of fiscal responsibility in the new year. The deficit, the income-inequality issue, and the GOP's politically damaging solicitude for the wealthy at the expense of deficit reduction will still be with us in 2012.