House Republicans cave in payroll fight

This morning, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other leading officials from his caucus told reporters that House Republicans would stick to their guns when it comes to extending the payroll tax break. If Democrats wanted to avoid a tax increase on the middle class, they would have to cave and make Boehner and his cohorts happy.

Not quite six hours later, Boehner and his cohorts threw in the towel.

House Republicans on Thursday crumpled under the weight of White House and public pressure and have agreed to pass a two-month extension of the 2 percent payroll-tax cut, Republican and Democratic sources told National Journal.

The House made the move after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., agreed to appoint conferees to a committee to resolve differences between the Senate’s two-month payroll-tax cut and the House’s one-year alternative.

Reid, you’ll remember, made this offer on Monday, and soon after Boehner said this morning that the deal wasn’t good enough, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) endorsed Reid’s solution. President Obama backed the same approach shortly thereafter.

The House will reportedly make some technical changes to the Senate bill, and the Senate will approve that final bill by unanimous consent.

With nine days to go, it appears all but certain that the payroll tax break — as well as a clean extension of unemployment benefits — will be extended for two months. Between now and then, a conference committee will be tasked with working on a deal for a full-year extension.

What changed Boehner’s mind? Or more accurately, what changed Boehner’s mind again? The Speaker, as recently as Saturday, wanted to pass the Senate compromise and send his caucus home for the holidays. They rebelled and the leader quickly became the follower.

By some accounts, this happened again today. House Republicans — Wisconsin’s Sean Duffy, Arkansas’ Rick Crawford, Pennsylvania’s Charlie Dent, among others — started breaking ranks after getting an earful in their local districts. GOP lawmakers who wanted to fight the Senate Braveheart-style came to the conclusion, “Maybe that Senate bill isn’t so bad after all.” When his members reversed course, the Speaker again took his cues from them, rather than the other way around.

If Boehner were a stronger, more effective House Speaker, this fiasco could have been easily avoided. He could have told his caucus this was a fight they were likely to lose, so passing the Senate bill quickly was the smart course of action. But he couldn’t — Boehner takes orders; he doesn’t give them.

It’s what helps make this story a disaster, not only for Republicans in general, but also for John Boehner personally. As he surrenders this afternoon, Boehner becomes The Speaker Who Has No Clothes.

He stuck out his neck, vowing not to cave, knowing he’d likely have to cave anyway. Boehner than waited until the pressure became unbearable — after he’d lost face and friends — and walked away with his tail between his legs.

Neither party has had a Speaker this feeble in modern times. His instincts told him to take the deal over the weekend, but Boehner allowed himself to be pushed around by his unhinged caucus, then get pushed around by Democrats, then get pushed around by his allies, then get pushed around by Senate Republicans.

How big a disaster was this for Boehner? Keep an eye on whether Eric Cantor’s travel schedule changes over the holidays.