In the political tug-of-war that's been the recurrent battle over the payroll tax cut, House GOP leaders surprised many observers Monday with their decision to stop pulling on the rope by no longer demanding spending offsets for extending the cut to the end of the year.
The unexpected move was described by some as a cave by Speaker John Boehner and his House leadership team.
But others interpreted the act as more of a crafty strategic retreat meant to accomplish at least two key ends. One, it was intended to prevent Republicans from incurring any more self-inflicted wounds on the issue.
As last year ended, Republicans were widely seen as losing the public-approval battle with President Obama on the issue with their insistence that any payroll tax cut extension be paid for with spending cuts elsewhere.
Two, it was meant to confuse Democrats, throwing them off balance and dividing them. Democrats have sought to link the payroll-tax extension to two other items on their wish list: an extension of unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed and legislation assuring no reduction in reimbursements to doctors seeing Medicare patients.
But House GOP leaders have essentially said they're willing to give on the payroll-tax cut extension, leaving Democrats in the position of appearing to be the obstinate ones, unwilling to take "yes" for answer if they insist that jobless benefits, the so-called "doc-fix" legislation and payroll-tax cut extension must all be in one legislative package.
In terms of dividing Democrats, at least initially, the Republican move appears to have done just that to some degree.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement that although she supports an extension that is not offset, she is concerned about decoupling the proposal from an extension of long-term unemployment insurance benefits and a proposal to halt a scheduled cut to reimbursements for doctors who treat Medicare patients...
"There is no reason all three of these priorities cannot proceed at the same time as both the House and Senate agreed," Pelosi said in a statement.
Nevertheless, Rep. Chris Van Hollen said that despite his concerns about breaking up the package, he believes there would be widespread support within the House Democratic Caucus for just a payroll tax holiday extension.
At a White House event Tuesday, Obama signaled his position to keep at least the payroll-cut extension and jobless benefits linked together.
"Congress needs to extend that tax cut along with vital insurance lifelines for folks who have lost their jobs during this recession, and they need to do it now, without drama and without delay, no ideological sideshows to gum up the works, no self-inflicted wounds. Just pass this middle-class tax cut. Pass the extension of unemployment insurance. Do it before it's too late, and I will sign it right away."
Despite the apparent split among Democrats, there was some evidence that Boehner's shift held some risks for him as a conservative leader. Many conservatives oppose the payroll tax cut extension on principle, especially if there are no spending cuts to pay for it.