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Published: 12/25/2011

Editorial

No lump of coal, finally

Merry Christmas to all: Thanks to a last-minute retreat by House Republican leaders, 160 million American workers won't lose a tax cut that will give the typical middle-class family about $1,000 next year. Three million Americans who have been out of work for six months or more, including roughly 60,000 Ohioans and a comparable number in Michigan, won't lose extended unemployment benefits.

However heartwarming the outcome of this Yuletide tale, the process used to achieve it was shameful. The delay in Washington in agreeing to help working and jobless Americans was not a general default by "the government" or a bipartisan or bicameral failure of Congress.

It was, rather, the product of the latest hostage-taking strategy by House Republicans -- and particularly its extremist Tea Party faction -- who acted as if they believe that a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans boosts the economy but one for the middle class does not. Their effort at extortion failed, as it deserved to.

"The American people" whom House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio incessantly claims to speak for might keep this episode in mind when they vote next year. In the meantime, Mr. Boehner has demonstrated -- again -- that he presides over the House Republican caucus but does not lead it.

The tax-cut compromise is hardly ideal. It merely maintains the Social Security payroll-tax holiday and extended unemployment insurance for two months, while lawmakers negotiate how to pay for these items for a full year.

But the House GOP resistance to this deal, approved by President Obama and both parties in the Senate, was based on the dubious logic that if Americans couldn't have the 12-month tax cut they deserve, they wouldn't get anything at all. Pressure from voters and intervention by Senate Republicans, notably Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, forced House Republicans to abandon their indefensible position.

The compromise includes a Republican demand that Mr. Obama decide within 60 days whether to authorize the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Serious questions remain about the project's long-term environmental soundness.

If it weren't the pipeline, though, House Republicans would have found some other pretext to seek to weaken the President as he embarks on his re-election campaign -- whatever the cost to Americans who care more about kitchen-table economics than partisan politics. In trying to deny Mr. Obama a political victory, they appear to have handed him one.

It would be nice to think that lawmakers finally have discovered the limits of escalating political disagreements into nuclear brinkmanship, playing chicken with the nation's credit rating or the ability of families to pay their bills. They might recall that the purpose of governance is to avoid crises, not to manufacture them.

They might seek to find a fair balance of new revenue, spending cuts, and health-care reform to finance the payroll tax cut -- not to mention long-term deficit reduction and economic recovery. Mr. Boehner might show that he is at least as interested in working to help his middle-class and jobless constituents and the rest of "the American people" as he is in rigging the map of Ohio's congressional districts to benefit his party.

Even in the glow of seasonal sentimentality, it probably is futile to hope that in an election year, politicians will resolve to work together in the national interest rather than pursuing partisan advantage at all costs. Meanwhile, Americans can accept at least a small holiday gift.



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