Leaders agreed to a yearlong extension without offsetting cuts.
WASHINGTON - House GOP leaders did an about-face and said they were willing to extend a payroll tax cut for 160 million working Americans without insisting that it be paid for.
The dramatic shift Monday was an effort by the Republicans to get past an issue on which President Obama and his Democratic allies had roundly attacked them since December. Polls have indicated that the Republicans have suffered considerable damage from Obama's assertion that they were blocking a tax break for the middle class.
Substantively, the result could mean that average working Americans will continue to receive an extra $20 a week in their paychecks uninterrupted through the end of the year. A vote on the GOP proposal could come as soon as this week, just days before the tax break is set to expire Feb. 29.
Politically, the Republican retreat means that Obama will have scored a big win on his top legislative priority for the year.
'Not our first choice'
Republicans have argued since November that the tax cut must be paid for by offsetting spending cuts. But that stance had little voter appeal and allowed Democrats to accuse Republicans of hypocrisy: The George W. Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthy, which Republicans will push to renew this year, have never been offset with spending cuts.
"This is not our first choice," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in a joint statement with his leadership team, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the third-ranking member of the GOP leadership. They described the proposal as a backup plan, required because Democrats have seen no reason to compromise in a battle they believed they were winning.
"In the face of the Democrats' stonewalling and obstructionism, we are prepared to act to protect small businesses and our economy from the consequences of Washington Democrats' political games," they said.
Tea Party opposition
Yet the GOP leaders' desire to turn the page does not mean the rank-and-file is ready to fall into line. Boehner faces the same potentially strong headwinds from his Tea Party-aligned majority as in the past, and at least some conservatives are likely to buck the compromise. That will force him to lean on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to win enough Democratic votes for passage.
As leaders considered the GOP offer, Democratic aides could not contain their enthusiasm for the breakthrough. Said one: "Send it on over."
But some Democratic leaders, including Pelosi, were cool to the overture, largely because it failed to resolve two other issues that have been part of the $160 billion package along with the payroll tax cut -- measures to continue long-term unemployment benefits and block a pay cut for doctors who treat Medicare patients. White House press secretary Jay Carney said, "We need to do all three."