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Obama showcases real-world cost of letting payroll tax cut expire

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With most lawmakers gone for the holidays, President Obama took full advantage of the empty stage, appearing with everyday Americans to make the case that House Republicans need to relent and pass a payroll tax cut extension that would mean an extra $1,000 a year to a typical family.

Obama struck a note of disgust Thursday with the paralysis in the Capitol, making the point that only a small minority of House Republicans is blocking a tax cut extension that would help struggling families heat their homes, fuel their cars and pay for essential groceries.

All week, the White House has been inviting people to submit stories about the hardships they would endure without the extra $40 in their paychecks if the payroll tax cut expires at year's end.

Some of the people who wrote in stood behind him -- a reminder that the brinkmanship in Washington has real-world costs for average Americans.

"What's happening right now is exactly why people just get so frustrated with Washington," Obama said.  "This is it; this is exactly why people get so frustrated with Washington. This isn't a typical Democratic-versus-Republican issue. This is an issue where an overwhelming number of people in both parties agree. How can we not get that done? I mean, has this place become so dysfunctional that even when people agree to things, we can't do it? It doesn't make any sense.

"So, enough is enough. The people standing with me today can't afford any more games. They can't afford to lose $1,000 because of some ridiculous Washington standoff."

Obama's appearance comes as House Republicans face enormous pressure to relent and ratify a Senate-passed compromise that would extend the payroll tax cut for two months while lawmakers negotiate a deal that would keep it in place through the end of 2012.

The dustup is one of the rare instances over the last few years in which Obama has clearly won the messaging war. He has squarely positioned himself on the side of middle-class families desperate for finanical help, while, by contrast, House Republicans seem to be obstructing matters for partisan gain. Even so conservative a voice as the Wall Street Journal editorial page has criticized the stance taken by the House GOP.

Recognizing that he has the upper hand, Obama is showing no inclination to compromise with House Republican leaders. He has postponed his Hawaii vacation to press for renewal of the tax holiday, elevating the issue to a national priority.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called Obama on Thursday morning and asked him to send members of his economic team to the House for further discussions. Obama said no, telling Boehner that the House must pass the Senate bill.

The White House position is that the compromise has already taken place -- in the form of the bill passed by the Senate last Saturday. With the tax cut set to expire in nine days, the only viable option to extend it is for the House to approve that bill as quickly as possible, the White House says. Logistically, that is becoming more difficult. Most lawmakers have left town for the holidays and the Capitol is virtually empty. Still, Boehner could call the House back into session the week between Christmas and New Year's.

After Obama's appearance, Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement: "The forty dollars the president spoke about are important. That's why the House is seeking to provide that tax relief for a full year, rather than only two months. It's disappointing the president says he agrees with the House's desire for a full-year extension, but has still declined to negotiate with Republicans to make it a reality."

Obama, speaking in an auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, made reference to the people who've written in with stories about the importance of the tax holiday. So far, the White House has gotten 30,000 such messages, he said.

"Joseph from New Jersey talked about how he would have to sacrifice the occasional pizza night with his daughters," Obama said. "He said -- and I'm quoting – 'My 16-year-old twins will be out of the house soon.  I'll miss this.' "

"Richard from Rhode Island wrote to tell us that having an extra $40 in his check buys enough heating oil to keep his family warm for three nights.  In his words -- I'm quoting – 'If someone doesn't think that 12 gallons of heating oil is important, I invite them to spend three nights in an unheated home.  Or you can believe me when I say that it makes a difference.' ”

To end the impasse, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky floated a way out: Have the House accept the Senate's compromise while formal talks get underway.

It was not immediately clear if House Republicans would take the offer.

Lisa Mascaro and Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.

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