December 17th, 2011
04:54 PM ET
WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Obama hailed Senate passage of a bill to extend for two months the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance - two key provisions of his jobs bill - saying the money would provide a lifeline to struggling families and make "a real difference" in the lives of people trying to buy groceries and pay the bills.
The president's comments came just hours after the Senate voted 89-10 to pass the measure, which also included a provision that prevents a drop in Medicare payments to doctors. But the House must still pass the bill, and it's not yet clear it has the support it needs to pass there. The president plans to delay his annual holiday trip to Hawaii until the House votes, senior administration officials said.
Obama also urged Congress to extend the tax cut for the rest of the year when lawmakers return after the winter break, saying it was his expectation that they would do so.
"It would be inexcusable for Congress not to further extend this middle-class tax cut for the rest of the year," he told reporters gathered in the White House briefing room Saturday. "It should be a formality and hopefully it's done with as little drama as possible when they get back in January. This really isn't hard. There are plenty of ways to pay for these proposals."
In fact, nothing has been a "formality" in Congress this session. The tax-cut extension the Senate passed Saturday faced a tough battle on Capitol Hill, where the parties had a hard time reaching agreement on how to pay for it. Republicans rejected a Senate proposal to fund the bill through a surtax on millionaires and even though Democrats dropped that proposal during negotiations, the president indicated the White House could continue to push that approach.
"My preference, and the preference of most Americans, is that we ask the wealthiest few Americans to pay their fair share and corporations to do without special taxpayer subsidies to cover some of the costs," Obama said.
Another sticking point was a provision expediting the permitting process for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. During a press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week, the president said "any effort to try to tie Keystone to the payroll tax cut I will reject."
The White House had hoped to push the decision off to 2013, after environmenalists raised concerns about the impact the pipeline route would have on Nebraska's Sandhills region and the Ogallala aquifer, a major source of groundwater that runs through several states. In the end, the provision giving the Obama administration 60 days to make a call on the project was included in the Senate bill in an effort to win GOP support.
In a briefing with reporters held after the president's brief remarks, senior administration officials called the vote a win for working people and insisted the White House had given no ground on the pipeline issue. They echoed the president, saying they were "confident" and "hopeful" that Congress would vote to extend the payroll tax cut through the rest of the year.
"We've kind of crossed the rubicon here where you've got huge majorities in both parties in both chambers saying they agree that this tax cut should get extended into 2012," one senior administration official said. "It's inconceivable that they won't find a way to extend it through the end of the year."
Officials said the president's campaign for the payroll tax-cut extension had forced Republicans to support it and added that most Americans agreed with asking the wealthy to help pay for it.
"There's a little bravado but any smart person - Republican in town - knows they are in a boatload of trouble," another official said. "They have repeatedly, because they are yoked to the Tea Party, taken a position that is the antithesis of what a majority of their own voters around the country want."
The administration officials argued the Keystone provision did not dictate an outcome on the pipeline, it simply shortened the review process by 60 days. They also repeated concerns outlined by the State Department - the agency in charge of the permitting process - that an expedited process would not allow enough time for a full review, almost certainly meaning they would not be able to approve the project.
"They're not making the president do anything," said an official, regarding the Keystone language.
Officials also said they were "comfortable" with the omnibus spending bill, which the Senate also passed Saturday, because it "reflects a lot of our key priorities," including preserving funding for various environmental protection initiatives; ensuring adequate funds for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission - an important aspect of the financial regulatory overhaul; and providing an additional $270 million in funding for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services as part of the health care overhaul, among other measures.