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 BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism 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.

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In November, BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Even some conservatives seem open to return to earmarks Overnight Finance: Trump, lawmakers take key step to immigration deal | Trump urges Congress to bring back earmarks | Tax law poised to create windfall for states | Trump to attend Davos | Dimon walks back bitcoin criticism 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 McConnellSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Overnight Finance: Lawmakers see shutdown odds rising | Trump calls for looser rules for bank loans | Consumer bureau moves to revise payday lending rule | Trump warns China on trade deficit 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 CantorEric Cantor: Moore ‘deserves to lose’ If we want to make immigration great again, let's make it bipartisan Top Lobbyists 2017: Hired Guns 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.