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Boehner ducks on expiring benefits: 'I'm not an economist'

House Speaker John Boehner (OH) said he was unsure of the impact on the economy if Congress doesn't extend unemployment insurance benefits and a payroll tax holiday on the agenda for lawmakers this month.

The Republican Speaker said that Republicans are interested in moving quickly on legislation to extend jobless benefits, which expired this week, along with a payroll tax cut supported by President Obama, which expires after Dec. 31.

But Boehner said he didn't know what would happen if Congress failed, a distinctly possible outcome given the gridlock that's plagued the House and Senate this year, especially on tax and spending issues.

"I'm not an economist, I don't know what impact it's going to have on the economy," he said in response to a question from NBC News at his weekly press conference. "It's just that I do believe there's enough common ground between where the White House and Democrats are and where Republicans are for us to move this legislation and to do so quickly."

Most economists believe failure to extend the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits would significantly hurt the economy. Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody's Analytics who's done work for both Democrats and Republicans, warned that failure to extend those benefits would make "real GDP growth will fall by nearly a percentage point and about one million jobs lost by the end of 2012."

Consensus may still elude Congress, too. Senate Democrats roundly rejected a proposal by their GOP counterparts on Wednesday that would have offset the cost of the extended payroll tax cut by cutting the federal workforce and freezing government employees' pay (while means-testing other benefits, like food stamps). Democrats favor a surtax on millionaires to finance an expanded payroll tax cut in 2012.

Boehner said moments later in the same press conference that he had little doubt that keeping payroll taxes lower would help the economy; the Speaker said his worry was how it would affect Social Security.

"I don't think there's any question that the pay roll tax relief in fact helps the economy. You're allowing more Americans, frankly every working American to keep more of their money in their pocket, that's a good thing," he said. "The concern that we've had is what does it to do the Social Security trust fund and that's why we believe protecting it is critically important."