JUNEAU — U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said Thursday that he’s glad the U.S. House appears ready to move ahead on a bill that will extend the payroll tax cut for two months.
The Alaska Democrat told reporters in Anchorage that he heard from constituents who were confused and frustrated as to why there was a standoff between the House and Senate on the issue. The House earlier this month rejected a Senate plan extending the tax break for two months. Majority House Republicans favored a longer-term plan, but the Senate majority leader ruled out talks until the House passed the Senate plan.
That set off a tense standoff that ended Thursday, with the House speaker announcing an agreement on the shorter-term bill that he expected to pass both chambers by Christmas.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said this provides some “breathing room” for Congress to find a full-year solution.
Besides extending the payroll tax cut, a benefit that Begich said is reaped by 400,000 Alaskans, the measure also keeps in place unemployment benefits for those without work for an extended period and delays reduced payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients. And it contains a provision that would require approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline within two months unless the Obama administration deems that it’s not in the national interest.
Both Murkowski and Begich have supported that provision, saying the project will provide thousands of jobs.
Begich said he’s optimistic that Congress will be able to tackle significant issues, including a more permanent tax solution and deficit reduction, in 2012 — a presidential election year. He said it has seemed the only way to get something done in the House and Senate has been to get the edge, “which is dangerous, in a lot of ways.”
But he said he thinks the Senate has shown, with its bipartisan vote on the payroll tax cut extension last weekend, that it is done with that.
Begich wants to work on restructuring the tax system, to help working families. He also wants to make sure that in the midst of any debt reduction effort, there is also a focus on revenues and continued investments in infrastructure, education and energy.
Begich said he hates the current federal education law, No Child Left Behind, which he and others have criticized as a one-size-fits-all approach to education that doesn’t work in places like Alaska. He said work on a new education bill will be among the focal points in 2012.