House GOP tries a new way

House Republican leaders, having experienced the public-relations nightmare of the payroll tax debate late last year, decided this week not to go around that hazardous course again.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerSome doubt McCarthy or Scalise will ever lead House GOP Lobbying World McCarthy courts conservatives in Speaker's bid MORE (R-Ohio) and his lieutenants dropped their demand that the cost of the payroll tax holiday, which is scheduled to expire at the end of this month, be fully offset with savings elsewhere.

In November, BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerSome doubt McCarthy or Scalise will ever lead House GOP Lobbying World McCarthy courts conservatives in Speaker's bid MORE said there’s “no debate” about whether to pay for the payroll tax breaks, adding, “I think you can take to the bank the fact that they will be paid for.”

Hmm — that was then, and this is now. The focus of odd-numbered years is governing, and the focus of even-numbered years is elections. 

Boehner was politically wise to shift gears, because in politics, you simply mustn’t make the same mistake twice.

House Republicans in December balked at the Senate’s two-month bipartisan bill, arguing that tax policy should not be done incrementally. 

Boehner went along with his conference and spoke out forcefully against the Senate measure. That did not sit well with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnell32 male senators back Senate women's calls to change harassment rules Duckworth brings her baby to Senate vote, drawing a crowd FreedomWorks backs Jim Jordan for House Speaker MORE (R-Ky.), who ironed out the deal that ultimately passed the upper chamber, 89-10.

President Obama and congressional Democrats pounced and easily won the inevitable message war.

A battle-scarred Boehner backed down before Christmas. He admitted that his strategy “may not have been politically the smartest thing in the world.”

In a joint statement on Monday, Boehner, Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorScalise allies upset over Ryan blindside on McCarthy endorsement 2018 will test the power of political nobodies Ryan signals support for McCarthy as next GOP leader MORE (R-Va.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said they were committed to extending the payroll tax and blamed Democrats for “stonewalling.” Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the No. 3 Democratic leader in the House, labeled the move a “cave.”

Maybe so, but it was a smart cave. And the joint statement from GOP leaders showed a unity that had been noticeably absent from the House GOP hierarchy in December. 

On Tuesday, McConnell declined to endorse the new House GOP offer, saying, “I don’t have a view on it right now.”

Last week he made the case strongly that the payroll tax holiday should be fully offset, saying, “At what point do we anticipate getting serious here about doing something about deficit and debt?”

It is clear that the Boehner-McConnell relationship took some hits a couple months ago, though they now appear to have their eyes on the prize of the Nov. 6 elections. 

Both leaders want to be in the majority in 2013. For that to happen, Boehner had to surrender in the payroll tax battle. McConnell wanted this issue behind him as well.