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Republican split gives Obama a Christmas gift

By David Usborne

Another round of partisan calculation has resulted in a dearth of seasonal goodwill on Capitol Hill this year after House Republicans refused to allow a payroll tax holiday for millions of Americans – but left themselves vulnerable to angry Democrats who claimed that they were putting political advantage ahead of the national interest.

If there is one place where it's a merry Christmas it's in the White House, where Barack Obama's strategists must be cock-a-hoop at the chance to get one over on their rivals.

President Obama has delayed his annual holiday in Hawaii by four days, to nudge Congress towards a solution. More likely, though, he is staying in town to take advantage of a crisis that started on Tuesday when a compromise bill to extend the tax break for two months was unexpectedly voted down by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The narrative of this mess is not a happy one but it is easy enough for Democrats to spin. Without a deal on extending a cut in the payroll tax that is already in place but which expires on 1 January, roughly 160 million middle class Americans will lose an additional $40 a week from their weekly wage cheque. Moreover, it is clear to some that the Republicans have once again been backed into a corner on the issue by the Tea Party.

John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, is not even being spared by colleagues in the Senate who last Saturday overwhelmingly passed a bill extending the tax cut for two months, with hopes that a full-year extension will be agreed after the recess.

"Of all the ugly partisanship that has disappointed the nation this year, this latest episode will hurt hardworking Americans directly and immediately," Republican Senator Scott Brown said in a statement. Senator John McCain said the move was "harming the Republican Party" and "harming the view, if it's possible any more, of the American people about Congress".

Mr Obama startled reporters in the White House press room on Tuesday by berating the Republicans for sabotaging the deal agreed in the Senate last weekend. "Now, let's be clear: Right now, the bipartisan compromise that was reached on Saturday is the only viable way to prevent a tax hike on January 1," Mr Obama declared. "It's the only one."

Some say Mr Obama's concern may only be skin deep. He "couldn't have asked politically for a bigger gift at Christmastime than how these Republicans are behaving in the House," said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist.

Bravehearts? GOP's film buffs

One of the more surprising political moves in the battle over the payroll tax break came in a meeting of the House Republican caucus on Monday, when, the Washington Post reported, the assembled congresspeople compared their plight to that of Mel Gibson in Braveheart – and proceeded to compare notes on their favourite scenes in the movie.

About 10 Republicans spoke of the parts they remembered most vividly from the tale of William Wallace, before the gathering invoked a famous moment of collective discipline from the film by chanting: "Hold! Hold! Hold! Hold!"

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