Sander Levin will work on payroll tax

Jan 5, 2012 Issues: Economy

Bipartisan panel will try to extend 2-month deal to a year

When Congress gets back down to business in January, the joint House-Senate committee that will try to hammer out a 1-year agreement on extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits will include Rep. Sander Levin as a member.

Levin, of Royal Oak, the leading Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, is one of five House Democrats appointed to the 20-member, bipartisan conference committee that will pick up where the 2-month extension adopted by Congress left off. The panel must act by Feb. 29 to preserve the provisions that were in place throughout 2011.

“As an appointee to the conference committee, I will work actively to address outstanding issues in ways that will ensure a full-year extension of tax relief for the middle class and federal unemployment insurance,” said Levin, who represents most of Macomb County.

In the wake of the failed congressional “supercommittee” formed earlier this year to devise deficit solutions, a seat on the conference committee could prove to be a frustrating engagement dominated by partisan stalemate. Election-year politics could make the job much more difficult than those tackled by recent conference committees, which are becoming rare in this era of strict partisanship on Capitol Hill.

President Obama said he expects “some tough fights” when the committee attempts to lengthen the 2-month agreement adopted just before Christmas to a 1-year pact.

Paying the $100 billion price tag for a full-year extension could be the biggest roadblock of all. Democrats want to levy a “millionaire’s tax,” a surcharge on the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers. Republicans want to freeze federal employees’ pay through September 2013. A fee tacked onto new mortgages backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac is also in the mix.

In a conference call with reporters last week, Levin said the 2-month safety-valve bill will need a lot of work. In particular, the prospect of just a 46-week unemployment insurance program in 2012 is “totally unacceptable,” he said. Compared to the 99-week maximum of the past three years, some Republicans have offered a 59-week duration as a middle ground.

Under the current program, depending on a state’s long-term unemployment rate, federally funded benefit extensions are offered in four tiers lasting 20 weeks, 14 weeks, 13 weeks and then 6 weeks.

Another issue on the plate of each conference committee member centers around extending a 27 percent increase in physicians’ reimbursements from the Medicare program. Failure to adopt a so-called “doc fix” would mean millions of seniors could be forced to find a new doctor if their primary care physician stops accepting Medicare patients.

In addition, Levin said rural hospitals would be hit hard financially if the reimbursement hike expires at the end of February. Physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech language pathologists would also face roadblocks to treating seriously injured patients.

And more than half a million low-income Medicare beneficiaries would no longer receive financial assistance with their Medicare premiums, according to some estimates.

Yet another matter on the conference committee agenda is the nation’s welfare program, known as TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. New restrictions for recipients favored by GOP lawmakers would ban spending TANF cash benefits at liquor stores, casinos or strip clubs.

Similarly, Republicans are seeking new requirements for long-term recipients of unemployment checks that would include drug testing, job training, and GED attainment for high school dropouts.