WASHINGTON -- The potential Republican retreat from a hard-line stance on extending the payroll tax cut comes as GOP leaders have been quietly urging their Tea Party members to be less extreme.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his top lieutenants on Monday proposed extending the 2-percent cut for the rest of the year without first finding a way to pay for it -- a dramatic switch from a position that led to a pre-Christmas showdown that almost saw lawmakers working through the holiday.
Then, Boehner announced a deal for a two-month extension, only to have his caucus rebel before they ultimately capitulated, agreeing to the short-term deal, as well as appointing a conference committee with the Senate to figure out how to pay for a full year, and prevent a cut in doctors' payments from Medicare and an expiration of long-term unemployment benefits.
Republicans took a beating in the debate, and it was an embarrassment they are eager not to repeat. So, sources told The Huffington Post, leaders have been pushing the caucus to be a little more thoughtful in their opposition to Democrats -- especially over something like a tax-break for the middle class in an election year -- and to consider how it plays politically.
Recently, at a meeting of senior Republican staffers hosted by the Ripon Society at Mount Vernon, Boehner's top aide, Barry Jackson, counseled other top staffers to persuade their bosses that they need to think more about how their adamant positions play in other districts -- and how it hurts.
"You've really go to put yourself in the shoes of some of our other members," a GOP aide recounted Jackson as saying. He was backed by the top aides for the rest of the leadership as well.
The other staffers appeared to get the message, the aide said, but it was not clear that they liked it.
"Really what he was saying was 'don't vote for the interests of your constituents, vote for the interests of your colleagues, because we want to keep the majority,'" the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as the event involved internal GOP deliberations.
"It's going to be a rough road again. It's like 'Groundhog Day,'" the staffer said, referring specifically to Boehner's proposal on the payroll tax and noting that the caucus won't necessarily go along.
Another senior aide said Jackson's appeal was much more general, but agreed that Jackson was appealing for a less parochial approach than one that caters solely to a Tea Party base in individual districts.
Jackson "was making the point [to] look at any issue from the perspective of one of your colleagues and think about how the way you frame up your position impacts them," the aide said.
"He said, 'Don't change your view or compromise your principles, but always give a thought as to how your position might help or hurt others on the team,'" the staffer said, calling it a "pretty broad, general, reasonable statement."
The GOP caucus was scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss Boehner's payroll proposal.
In case they have any doubt, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, offered a reminder of the December debacle in a floor speech Tuesday morning.
"Many may remember the flap that occurred," Durbin said, noting how he dealt with the blockade of the obstruction. "I went back to my state and talked about it, county by county, as to how much it meant to working families."
Durbin also noted that Boehner had been set on paying for the extension.
"That was just a few days ago," Durbin said. He pointedly added, "It would be easy to take a shot at the speaker because he changed his position, but I won't."
Instead, Durbin pointed to one of the items Boehner is proposing to leave on the table in severing the payroll issue, and about which he also may need to have extensive discussion with his caucus.
"The last point I will make, the extension of unemployment benefits, is of equal value to the economy and immeasurable value to those who are out of work and struggling to find a job," Durbin said. "Make sure if we get this done on the payroll tax cut, we don't give up on extending unemployment benefits."
It was unclear if unemployment and the "doc fix" would get similar treatment from the GOP, but at least one senior Republican senator praised the tactical approach to removing a potent weapon for Democrats. "We should move on to other important things," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the Senate GOP election committee, told Congressional Quarterly. "Sometimes ... in order to win the war you need to have a tactical retreat."
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