WASHINGTON -- Democrats are winning the message war over the payroll tax cut, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) declared Tuesday, conceding the GOP was getting "picked apart" on the issue.
"Absolutely, they are in an advantageous position. Absolutely," McCain said of the Democrats' stance in the messaging war over tax cuts for the middle class.
Democrats have proposed extending a payroll tax cut holiday through next year and expanding it to 3.1 percent -- worth about $1,500 on average -- and paying for it largely by a surtax on millionaires.
Republicans voted against that proposal last week, citing the tax on the rich. They also opposed an alternate extension of the break from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), paid for by cutting the federal workforce.
It's given Democrats the opportunity to pound the GOP relentlessly for opposing cuts for the middle class while protecting the wealthy -- and McCain admitted the other side was doing it well.
"I think there is certainly ample evidence that the Democrats are winning this debate," McCain told reporters on Capitol Hill.
McCain's assessment was a stark admission that Republicans have been flailing around for a counter message, and the former White House candidate said they had to get one fast before they suffer more damage.
"We have to, one, negotiate, but second of all, have a coherent plan of all the economy, including repatriation of overseas money, including a reduction in regulations, including tax reform," McCain said. "We've got to get back to the big picture of our vision for America, and our belief that business creates jobs, not government creates jobs, and policies around that, rather than being picked apart on this particular issue.
"Clearly Republicans haven't gotten our cohesive plan together," McCain added.
Exactly how the GOP will pull a plan together remains unclear, but emerging wisdom from the caucus hinted that Republicans would be looking for some sort of bigger-picture legislation to get out of the bind on fighting the payroll tax cut.
Many Republicans have begun to argue that cutting the payroll tax another year undermines Social Security, which it was created to fund.
"You go another year, and it's going to be even more cemented in," said Sen. Bob Corker, (R-Tenn.), voicing a fear of some Social Security advocates. "Candidly, you turn Social Security into a welfare program, so I would think that over time AARP would think this is a really bad Idea, but I haven't heard anything from them, for some reason. It's kinda odd."
One possible solution might be letting the tax cut expire and replacing it, said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who opposes the payroll tax cut on the grounds that it comes out of Social Security.
"First of all, I'm all for not increasing taxes," Johnson said, adopting some of the Democrats' talking points. "We've got to do some kind of short-term rebates, so we're not increasing taxes on the American people, on hardworking middle-class families... I think we may be able to unify ourselves around an approach where we offer some other type of tax relief."
A day earlier, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) argued that perhaps the tax break should be part of something as big as extending the Bush-era tax cuts some more. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) sounded like he might be inclined in a similar direction, but was not ready to be specific.
"I think if we do it, it ought to be part of a bigger package taking care of a lot of unfinished business," he said.
Among that business is preventing a dramatic cut in payments to doctors in Medicare, stalling the mandated hike in the alternative minimum tax, extending unemployment insurance benefits and passing funding to keep the government running.