WASHINGTON – Now that Mitt Romney has emerged as the likely GOP presidential nominee, congressional Republicans increasingly are taking their cues from him even if it causes heartburn and grumbling among conservatives unhappy about having to beat a tactical retreat.
That dynamic was on full display last week as House Speaker John Boehner coped with the dust-up generated by President Barack Obama over student loans and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell sidestepped Democratic attempts to brand Republicans as soft on the issue of violence against women.
It's a defensive game for Republicans, determined to avoid their stumbles last year when they lost the political battle over renewing Obama's payroll tax cut.
"Some folks in an election year would say you need to take tough issues off the table," said Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga. "Other folks in an election year say you need to bring your best solutions to the toughest issues, and I'm in that latter camp."
The matter of student loan interest rates was on the back burner until barely a week ago when the White House elevated it to the top of its agenda. Obama pounded away during visits to university campuses in North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado, pivotal states in the November election.
Interest rates are scheduled to double, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, on July 1 due to a quirk in a law Democrats muscled through Congress five years ago.
Romney on Monday endorsed the $6 billion move to forestall the interest rate increase, even before Obama had arrived at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Boehner quickly set a vote, using unspent money from Obama's unpopular health care law to pay for the plan. By Friday, the issue was mostly deflated.
The vote, however, put Republicans at odds with the Club For Growth, which urged lawmakers to oppose the legislation. The group sometimes uses its fundraising power to back primary challengers to GOP incumbents.
Boehner, R-Ohio, accused Obama of manufacturing the issue.
"The president keeps attempting to invent these fake fights because he doesn't have a record of success or a positive agenda for our country," the speaker said. "It is as simple as this: The emperor has no clothes."
In fact, Republicans had invited a fight by failing to address the issue before Obama raised it. Their budget blueprint last month assumed the interest rate subsidy would expire. While the GOP chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee worked on a longer-term plan, Boehner stepped in to take the issue off the campaign table.
"I think they're doing a good job of seeing when pitches are coming at their head," said GOP strategist John Feehery of Quinn Gillespie & Associates.
But, Feehery added, "You can't just be on defense all the time. You've got to be on offense, too. The Republicans are better off when they're trying to pin Obama down on things as opposed to when they're trying to avoid haymakers from Obama."
Opportunities to go on offense are limited because Republicans control only the House.
Holding both the White House and a Senate majority, Democrats have more opportunity to set the political agenda. That was the case with the Violence Against Women Act, the government's main domestic violence program.
It had been renewed twice without opposition in the Senate, but Democrats this year opted to make it a broader battle for women's votes.
With a handful of GOP co-sponsors, they added new language making gays and battered illegal immigrants eligible for a variety of assistance, and that led to opposition from many conservatives.
"They specifically put things in there in an attempt to get us to vote 'no,'" said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.
Democrats threatened to force an up-or-down vote on their preferred version, and that could have put numerous Republicans on the wrong side of the issue. McConnell, R-Ky., promised a speedy debate and won a demand to have votes on two GOP alternatives. That defused the battle, for now.
So what's next?
Obama and Democrats such as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York have more up their sleeve, including a pay equity bill opposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other Republican allies.
Later, there could be potential Senate votes on extending expiring middle-class tax cuts. If the Supreme Court strikes down Obama's health care law, Democrats would be poised to force votes on popular elements of the measure, including allowing children up to 26 years old to remain on their parents' health insurance.