WASHINGTON – With tea party-backed first-termers calling the shots, House Republicans snatched political defeat from the jaws of victory in a year-end showdown over Social Security payroll tax cuts and jobless benefits.
This time, they pushed the country to the brink — and wound up blinking.
"In the end House Republicans felt like they were re-enacting the Alamo, with no reinforcements and our friends shooting at us," said veteran Republican Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas.
By spurning a deal that Senate Republicans had embraced, for a two-month extension of tax cuts for 160 million Americans and jobless benefits for millions more, the House wing of the party isolated itself politically and by some calculations improved President Barack Obama's re-election prospects.
Friday brought a humbling surrender, the only realistic alternative despite grumbling from scattered holdouts and Newt Gingrich, courting tea party support in the race for the presidential nomination.
By then, even allies said Republicans had become vulnerable to Obama's accusation that they, alone, were threatening a fragile economic recovery and the well-being of the employed and unemployed alike. "Right now, the bipartisan compromise that was reached on Saturday is the only viable way to prevent a tax hike on Jan. 1," Obama said Tuesday after the House rejected the two-month measure that had sailed through the Senate on a vote of 89-10.
The reliably conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal piled on, referring to a circular Republican firing squad. The GOP has "achieved the small miracle of letting Mr. Obama position himself as an election-year tax cutter. ... This should be impossible," it wrote on Wednesday.
One poll said Obama ran ahead of Republicans when it came to handling taxes, an issue that has generally favored the GOP since Ronald Reagan sat in the White House three decades ago.
No less critical were Senate Republicans, fearing the impact on their own political prospects, both individually and as a group eager to gain a majority in the 2012 elections. A gain of four seats would give them control, and several close races are likely. Losses suddenly seemed possible instead. There was in even talk that the hardline stance by House Republicans was putting the GOP's big majority in that chamber in danger.
Most importantly, for the first time all year, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell wasn't in a position to help as House Speaker John Boehner sought to carry out the wishes of his rank and file, the Kentucky senator having voted for the bill that House Republicans insisted was a loser.
At its core, the dispute was a simple one.
Talks between the two parties in the Senate on a full-year extension faltered when negotiators could not agree on the cuts needed to make sure the measure did not increase deficits. The two-month stopgap bill was designed to keep the tax cuts and jobless benefits going until the negotiations could resume again after the first of the year.
To the tea party types, that smacked of government as usual, precisely what they came to Washington to change.
"We're as unified as we've been all year," said Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, on the night before the House Republicans rejected the Senate bill, demanded negotiations on a compromise and drove themselves into a political dead end.
This time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democrats had no incentive to negotiate, unlike earlier when brinkmanship pushed the government to the edge of a partial shutdown or an unprecedented default.
They and the White House had already caved to Republican demands that any extension be paid for, and that Obama decide within 60 days whether to allow construction of an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.
The president had threatened to veto any measure that linked tax cuts and the pipeline, hoping to postpone a decision on the project until after the election. Late last week, he did an about-face and demanded Congress send him a bill that did precisely that.
The reversal gave Republicans the political victory some had sought if they were going to approve an extension of the tax cuts and jobless benefits at the core of Obama's jobless program.
Boehner told House Republicans as much in a conference call on Saturday, according to several officials who listened. They added he recommended no specific course of action and sought the all views.
Some lawmakers suspected Boehner had acquiesced in the two-month extension that McConnell worked out, and he was challenged on it 48 hours later in a closed-door meeting. He bristled at the accusation, according to several participants, and denied it flatly.
There were hints of infighting. Behind closed doors, one Republican lawmaker raised a concern about a memo — inaccurate, he said — from an unidentified staff aide who wrote that Boehner favored a more conciliatory approach than Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other members of the leadership.
"We're here and ready to work," Boehner told reporters on Wednesday morning. He spoke at a made-for-television event with Cantor and the eight Republicans, including three first-termers, appointed to conduct non-existent negotiations with Democrats.
Little more than 24 hours later, the charade ended when Boehner informed his own rank and file, no consultations permitted.
By then, even two newcomers to the House had issued public statements calling for an end to the standoff.
"I don't think that my constituents should have a tax increase because of Washington's dysfunction," said freshman Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., now a voting member of the government he was criticizing.
The struggle over, Reid said he hoped the episode had been "a very good learning experience, especially to those who are newer" to Congress.
"Everything we do around here does not have to wind up in a fight."
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Espo covers Congress for The Associated Press.