WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers has been tapped by House Republicans to help lead a showdown with senators over the payroll tax cut.
House Speaker John Boehner selected the freshman Republican from Dunn to serve on a joint committee tasked with working out the differences between the two-month payroll tax extension passed by the Senate and a one-year proposal preferred by the House.
The effort comes after the GOP-led House voted 229 to 193 to reject the bipartisan Senate plan to extend the current tax rate for two months. Employees have paid a 4.2 percent Social Security tax this year; it's scheduled to go up to 6.2 percent next year unless the current rate is extended.
The House vote increases the likelihood that 160 million people could face a tax increase on Jan. 1.
But Ellmers and House Republicans say they're confident they can negotiate a one-year extension with senators before the increase takes effect.
Finding any type of agreement among the partisan wrangling has proven difficult for even the most seasoned lawmakers and the rhetoric surrounding the showdown grows uglier each day.
But the Republican leadership says Ellmers has quickly distinguished herself among members of the freshman class of Republicans.
"Renee has quickly proven to be a very skilled member, very smart and hardworking," said Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee.
"We picked the freshmen who we thought were best qualified to be in a position like this, and Renee was at the top of the list."
The Democratic Party, however, sees Ellmers as an example of why Americans have lost faith in the Republican Congress. Adam Hodge of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Ellmers voted to block a $1,000 payroll tax cut for the middle class.
"After 39 Republican Senators voted to compromise, Representative Ellmers voted for the radical tea party Republican plan to hike taxes on 4.7 million North Carolina middle-income families," he said.
Rep. Brad Miller, a Raleigh Democrat, said it doesn't really matter who is on the committee.
"Usually conferees on controversial issues are more senior members because they know what their party will support or oppose," he said. "Since top Republican leaders have no clue what House Republicans will support or oppose in this bill, why not Renee?"
The House Republican freshmen, many elected as part of the tea party movement, grabbed the spotlight this week when they opposed the Senate's two-month extension. Ellmers was one of the most vocal of the class criticizing the White House and congressional Democrats.
"The Senate refuses to do the job they were elected to do and is being irresponsible," she said on Tuesday. "I urge Senator (Harry) Reid to do what Speaker Boehner is doing today and name conferees to this committee so we can work out our differences as regular order would require us to do."
The Republicans see Ellmers as a pivotal member in garnering support of the freshman class, said Michael Franc, the vice president for government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Ellmers is not the only freshman on the eight-person committee. Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., and Tom Reed, R-N.Y., are also new members.
Franc said it's extraordinary to have three freshmen on such a committee and is a clear indication of the power of this year's newest representatives.
"If three freshmen sign off, then that ought to be an indication to the rest of the freshman class that this is a good deal," Franc said.
In no small part, the standoff is about partisan positioning for next November's elections. Each party thinks it can persuade voters that the other is being irresponsible.
After the House vote, an angry President Barack Obama warned, "The issue right now is this: The clock is ticking; time is running out." And, he said, the Senate bill is "the only viable way to prevent a tax hike January 1. It's the only one."
He urged Boehner and other House Republicans to "put politics aside, put aside issues where there are fundamental disagreements and come together on something we agree on. And let's not play brinksmanship. The American people are weary of it; they're tired of it."
Boehner was defiant: "We've done our work for the American people," he said at a news conference. "Now it's up to the president and Democrats in the Senate to do their job as well."
Told that Obama was seeking his help, Boehner said, "I need the president to help out, all right?"
Other changes are in store Jan. 1 if the two sides can't agree. Medicare payments to physicians would drop 27.4 percent, and long-term jobless workers would be unable to collect up to 99 weeks of benefits.
But it's unclear when or even whether negotiations between House and Senate members will occur.
The Senate adjourned thinking that the House would go along with its compromise, and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has balked at appointing negotiators.
"I have been trying to negotiate a yearlong extension with Republicans for weeks, and I am happy to continue doing so as soon as the House of Representatives passes the bipartisan compromise to protect middle-class families, but not before then," he said Tuesday.
Even if the two sides meet, they face tight deadlines. Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, figured that negotiators have two weeks to get a deal. Since Jan. 1 and 2 are federal holidays, lawmakers would have until midnight Jan. 2 to work something out, he said.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy said its important to have the freshman voice represented. And he touted Ellmers experience in the private sector and as a nurse as critical for understanding the complicated payroll tax debate.
She may be a freshman, but shes got more knowledge on some of those issues than members who have been there for a while.
William Douglas of McClatchy Newspapers contributed.