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House fight puts 'doc fix' on hold

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | December 20, 2011
The "doc fix," which would freeze a looming 27 percent cut to Medicare reimbursements to doctors, is sailing through some choppy seas, as the House of Representatives Tuesday effectively shot down a short-term solution.

The House didn't vote on a Senate tax holiday bill Monday that included a two-month freeze on the cuts, which start in January, as Republican leaders are trying to push for the House's version of the bill, which it passed last week. And on Tuesday, after a bitter partisan squabble, the House effectively voted "no" to the Senate's efforts.

Doctors are worried about the upcoming cuts, brought about by the so-called sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula. But the congressional fight is mainly over an extension of a payroll tax holiday, which expires at the end of the year. The Senate bill, which easily cleared the chamber in an 89-10 vote, extends the tax holiday through February, while the House bill extends it for a year, albeit at the cost of some spending cuts that made it "dead-on-arrival" in the Senate. The $33 billion Senate bill also extends unemployment benefits and calls on the Obama administration to make a quick decision on the building of a controversial oil pipeline.

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On Tuesday, the GOP-controlled House moved to tackle a series of resolutions about the Senate's bill without voting on it directly. In an almost completely partisan split, the House essentially voted to reject the Senate's amendments to the bill and call for a conference with the Senate to come up with a new one. However, the Senate, after passing its bill on Saturday, has gone on its holiday recess, and is unlikely to come back to Washington before the end of January.

The deadlock brought about some acrimonious debate Tuesday afternoon, as House Democrats asked GOP leaders to allow a direct vote on the bill, accusing them of denying it so as not to be recorded voting against a tax break for 168 million Americans.

"Why not allow a vote on the Senate bill? If you believe in bipartisanship, why not allow a vote on a bipartisan bill in the Senate?" asked Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

"The sanctimonious rhetoric you hear today from the Republicans is nothing but talk, baby talk. If they don't get their way exactly, then they won't play," Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said. "The House Republicans are the Grinches who stole your Christmas."

For their part, Republicans said they didn't want to make tax policy on such a short term basis.

"Fixing something for two months is not fixing something. It's a band-aid, and it's bad policy," Diane Black (R-Tenn.) said.

But GOP opposition wasn't uniform. Chris Van Hollen, a Republican from Maryland, called the refusal to hold a direct vote on the bill a "triumph of Tea Party extremism over the good of the country."

"The consequences are going to be very clear. On January 1, 160 million Americans are going to see their payroll tax increased," he said.

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