What to expect in Round Two

This week was Round One of a larger fight, and for Democrats, it was a win on points. For the next two months, Dems got the middle-class tax cuts they wanted and the clean extension of unemployment benefits they wanted. It’s not a bad way to wrap up the year.

The next question to consider, of course, is what happens in Round Two.

Republicans took a beating this week, but they don’t leave the ring empty handed. They’ll get an expedited decision on the Keystone XL pipeline and a conference committee process to work on a full-year extension.

It’s obviously early — the two-month deal still needs to pass — but it’s not too soon to look ahead and realize that the odds of a successful conference-committee process aren’t good at all. Ezra Klein had a good item looking at the bigger picture this morning.

One possibility is that the Republicans decide that fighting the payroll tax cut is simply too much trouble. If that’s their conclusion, then the next extension might pass easily. But another possibility is that House Republicans are furious at having been forced to buckle this time, and their takeaway is that, next time, they need a better strategy, and they need to make sure Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are on the same page. In that case, the next extension will be an even heavier lift.

I’m inclined to expect the latter. In fact, it’s practically a mortal lock.

The House GOP leadership has already announced its slate of members to participate in the conference committee, and not coincidentally, most of them have said they don’t want a payroll-cut extension no matter what concessions Democrats are willing to make.

House Republicans aren’t looking to start cutting deals; they’re angry and now even less inclined to compromise. But won’t the GOP run into the same pressures that led to this week’s capitulation? Maybe, but let’s not forget why Boehner & Co. were so eager to send this to a conference committee in the first place.

To offer a quick refresher, conference committees have historically been used to bridge the gap between similar-but-distinct versions of the same bill that have already passed the House and Senate. It works a bit like the recently-disbanded “super committee” — members of both parties and both chambers work out a bill that’s then sent to the floors for up-or-down votes.

In this case, Boehner believes that the conference committee will fail — Republicans will refuse to compromise — and the process will provide him and his party cover. Instead of this week, in which the House GOP became the clear villain, if/when the conference committee struggles to come up with a bipartisan solution, Republicans would find it easier to spread the blame around.

“It’s not our fault,” GOP leaders would say. “We tried to work with Democrats on a deal, but one didn’t come together. Oh well.”

For Republicans, it would be the best of all possible worlds: middle-class taxes would go up, the economy would take a hit, public disgust for Washington would be renewed, and the media would feel obligated to say “both sides” failed to reach an agreement.