WASHINGTON — Republican leaders in the House of Representatives may have avoided steering their entire party toward political disaster in 2012 by giving up Thursday on their refusal to back a short-term Social Security payroll tax-cut extension.
But their weeklong obstinacy may still have given President Barack Obama an important boost.
On Friday, the House and Senate quickly agreed to the two-month extension, and President Obama signed it into law. The deal keeps Social Security payroll taxes at 2011 levels through February and thus avoids an average $80 a month tax hike for 160 million Americans. Under terms of the deal, both sides will negotiate toward trying to extend the terms for a full year.
The GOP change of heart came after days of relentless pressure from the White House, friendly fire from many conservatives including The Wall Street Journal and, on Thursday, from Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
And the political fallout is likely to linger.
"This just reinforces the public's suspicions about the Republican Party, which were already pretty negative," said Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan polling outfit.
Until House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, capitulated Thursday, House Republicans had seemed to be playing into Obama's hands. It was reminiscent of 1995-96, when Newt Gingrich led the House GOP and Bill Clinton was the Democratic president. Gingrich overplayed his hand in a fight over budget priorities, Clinton refused to go along and the federal government shut down twice — the second time from Dec. 15 through Jan. 6. Clinton persuaded the public that GOP extremism was to blame and coasted to an easy re-election that fall.
The parallels were striking. Like Clinton in 1995, Obama has been positioning himself since Labor Day as the protector of the middle class. He's called almost daily for a tax hike on millionaires to underscore his distinction from Republicans, who defend the millionaires and now are on the verge of forcing a tax increase on workers.
Obama's already gained in polls. A new survey for CNN taken Dec. 16-18 put his approval rating at 49 percent, up 5 points from last month. And a new ABC News-Washington Post poll released this week showed that 50 percent of Americans trust Obama more to protect the middle class, vs. 35 percent who trust Republicans. Last month the two had been more evenly matched.
Obama "has the high ground," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas, though he warned, "Events can change that."
And despite Obama's current momentum, "what's going on is very much inside Washington," cautioned Charles Jones, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The 1995-96 budget debate was an inside-the-Beltway phenomenon in holiday season, too — until it forced real consequences on the country by shutting down the federal government. Similarly, the current tax-cut extension fight could be forgotten amid public pre-occupation with the holiday season — unless the two sides deadlock again in two months and taxes go up.
If that happens, it is the president who possesses "the bully pulpit" to shape public perception of who's to blame.
"Incumbent presidents have enormous advantages," Newt Gingrich observed on Wednesday at an Iowa press conference, recalling how Clinton triumphed over him in 1996. "It's very hard for the legislative branch to outperform the president in communications. He has all the advantages of being one person. He has all the advantages of the White House as a backdrop, and my experience is presidents routinely win."
House leaders caved after strong pressure from Senate Republicans. McConnell publicly urged his House colleagues to make a deal Thursday — an important game-changer, after growing numbers of Senate Republicans publicly implored their House colleagues to back down.
"Are Republicans getting killed now in public opinion? There's no question about it," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Wednesday on CNBC. He called for House Republicans to go along with the two-month tax-cut extension the Senate passed Saturday by 89-10.
House Republicans argued all week that a two-month extension is disruptive to business planning and the Senate should return next week and negotiate a 12-month extension before Jan. 1. But Democrats — and some Senate Republicans — countered there was no time for that now and negotiations could resume next month after the House swallowed the two-month extension.
Most House Republicans didn't want to yield, even though they were getting pummeled politically.
"The headlines are creaming us," Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, conceded mid-week. "I get that. But we have the moral high ground."
Three major programs were set to change Jan. 1 until the deal extended current law for two months. The Social Security payroll tax paid by employees, now 4.2 percent, would return to 6.2 percent. Medicare payments to physicians would drop 27.4 percent, and unemployed workers would no longer be able to get up to 99 weeks of benefits. All are expected to be extended for two months in voice votes in both chambers Friday.
The deal avoids those changes for now, but the memory of House GOP brinksmanship could persist in voters' minds, a vivid reminder of partisan and ideological logjams that have plagued Congress all year, since Republicans recaptured control of the House in November 2010. Their insistence on no-compromise budget stands almost shut the government down in April and led to the summer's debt-ceiling debacle that saw U.S. debt's trustworthiness downgraded by a rating agency for the first time in history.
Then last month, the bipartisan "supercommittee" charged with finding a budget compromise collapsed in failure. Through it all, polls made clear that the public is disgusted and increasingly blames Republicans more than Democrats.
Where Obama could benefit, said political scientist Jones, is that it reinforces his message that Republicans in Congress are obstructionist.
However, analysts cautioned, Obama's fate ultimately will rest on the performance of the economy and the identity of his still-to-be-determined GOP opponent.
"Relative to Congress, he looks great," said Dimock. "But that's all going to change once they choose a nominee."
That's to unfold in coming months. For the moment, observed Buchanan of University of Texas shortly before Boehner capitulated, "it doesn't make any political sense for Republicans in the House to be doing this, and this seems to help the president."
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM McCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington