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Congressional Payroll Tax Cut Battle Goes Local

An impromptu food drive was held outside the Mount Lebanon office of Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA 18) on Thursday, but the effort was more a political statement than earnest charity.

The idea was to imply that more people will need to accept rations from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank if no agreement is reached on a bill to prolong the federal payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits, and a reduction of Medicare fees for doctors. The protesters believe that Murphy is standing in the way of a deal.

The House and Senate cannot agree on the provisions of the legislation, though each chamber recognizes the need for the extension of the Social Security tax cut from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent — a bipartisan effort that has bolstered Americans' paychecks since the measure took effect on the first day of 2011.

The package of tax cuts and unemployment benefits expires at year's end, and now labor activists are clamoring for an extension to keep working families afloat during a down economy. Marty Marks of the Allegheny County Labor Council blamed Congressman Murphy and other House Republicans for voting to kill a bipartisan Senate stopgap measure, which would have extended the tax cut and unemployment benefits for two months as the debate over details continued.

"The Senate and President Obama have, from day one, been in favor of extending that program for one year," said Marks. "It's Republicans who blocked that because they didn't want to go along with making a surtax on millionaires and billionaires to offset the cost of it."

However, Murphy argued that the real fight is over the Senate bill's omission of several reforms proposed for the unemployment benefits program, which House Republicans have suggested to be optional to states.

"States would have the option of requiring drug tests for some folks who are getting unemployment compensation," said Murphy. "When you ask voters if they think that's a good idea, the vast majority say yes … Secondly, if someone is on unemployment, rather than just sitting at home, this is an opportunity for them to pursue a GED if they do not have a high school diploma."

Other proposed options include requirements for beneficiaries to prove that they're actually looking for work, and a measure to infuse some unemployment funding to employers, who would then be required to use the cash to hire new workers. The optional measures would be put to vote by each state's legislature.

"I think those are all important things to be able to provide, to get our workforce working again and to get people feeling good about themselves again," said Murphy. "It was unfortunate that the Senate stripped all those elements out."

The Republican Congressman is calling on Senate Democrats to appoint members to a conference committee, so that the two bills' differences can be resolved before the January 1 deadline. He said that a two-month stopgap bill would be inadequate. Senate leadership has shown a reluctance to call members back from the holiday recess.

Meantime, the Allegheny County Labor Council is urging Murphy and other House Republicans to pass the Senate measure so that the issue can be resolved in January.

"Congressman Murphy voted with Speaker Boehner," said Marks. "There were Republicans who did not; he wasn't one of them … But it's not too late to redeem himself. He can be calling on Speaker Boehner now, as Republicans all over the country are, to go ahead and move the Senate bill through the House."