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House GOP Finds Itself Out on a Limb

Updated: 5:35 p.m.

House Republicans today found themselves increasingly isolated in their high-stakes game of chicken over a payroll tax cut extension as Democrats, the White House and even Senate Republicans were all increasingly critical of their intransigence.

As the standoff slowly ground through its fourth day, Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) continued to see support erode for his Conference’s opposition to extending the payroll tax cut for an additional two months to give Congress more time to work out a longer extension.

Boehner awoke to harsh words from the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which bluntly wrote that “Republicans have thoroughly botched the politics” of the payroll fight, adding that “At this stage, Republicans would do best to cut their losses and find a way to extend the payroll holiday quickly.”

Later, Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) — the only Senate Republican who had come to the defense of House Republicans — acknowledged on CNBC that their opposition was turning into a political nightmare.

Corker called it “one more public policy blunder. … Probably at this point, the best thing to do is to figure out a way to get this behind us and move on and hopefully at some point, figure out a way to begin dealing with the real issues that our country needs to deal with.”

Although Corker would later in the day attempt to walk back his comments, the damage was done, and a flood of Senate GOP leadership and rank-and-file aides began taking their own shots at Boehner, criticizing everything from how he conducted himself in talks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to how he has handled the politics of the showdown.

“If you’re going to have a standoff, have a standoff,” one exasperated veteran GOP Senate aide said, adding that while Boehner continues to insist he warned McConnell he would not back the two-month deal, “the House guys signed off on this. McConnell wouldn’t have done this if he hadn’t.”

The Senate aide also sympathized with Boehner, arguing that his Conference has put him in a difficult position and that given the vitriolic rhetoric, it’s unclear whether Boehner could cave on the issue even if he wanted to at this point.

“They could have before; I don’t know if they can now,” the aide added.

The entire day wasn’t filled with friendly fire for Boehner, however, as the Speaker appeared at meeting of his picks for a conference committee that has yet to materialize. Influential radio host Rush Limbaugh came out in support of him and launched a harsh attack against the Wall Street Journal editorial board’s conservative credentials.

Later in the afternoon in an at-times-fawning interview, radio host Michael Medved effused over Boehner, calling him “the real leader” of the United States and praising his handling of the fight.

Medved also gave Boehner plenty of space to make his case, which Boehner took full advantage of.

“We are the party of tax cutters, we have been for 30 years and that’s not going to change,” said Boehner, who insisted his entire Conference supports an extension of the payroll tax cut and that the divisions in Washington are relatively minor squabbles over how to pay for it.

Medved also gave Boehner time to shoot down Democratic complaints that he manufactured the crisis as part of a broader political strategy. “No, Michael, no,” the Speaker said with a chuckle.

Boehner also got some much-needed support from Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and an influential conservative on tax issues.

Norquist said in an interview that the politics of the situation could turn around in Republicans’ favor. “I don’t think you can go for a week with the narrative that Republicans are in the way” when they will be saying “until they’re blue in the face” that they support a one-year extension and are willing to go to conference, he added.

But Democrats continued to pressure House Republicans to take up the Senate-approved, two-month compromise. Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) pointed to the concessions his party already made, including language expediting an administration decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

“We even swallowed hard and put this oil pipeline in there,” Schumer said on a press call, adding that Republicans needed to move on the already-passed bill before negotiators can discuss a full-year measure.

“The first thing that they have to do to show their good faith is pass the two-month extension,” he said.

Without a show of good faith, Democrats are reveling in the opportunity to force wedges into the GOP ranks.

Sensing Democrats have Republicans on the ropes, House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said, “It’s not a fight between Republicans and Democrats. … What you have here is a fight between the Republican right and the Republican far right.”

Similarly, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) dismissed the notion of a conference committee at all, arguing that “the irony is that the Speaker has appointed five [Members] … all of whom have said at one point or another they oppose” an extension of the payroll tax cut.

Schumer piled on, calling Republicans’ conference committee a “charade” on a phone call with reporters today and said the House should instead hold an up-or-down vote on the Senate-passed bill.

“It’s hard to take that idea seriously when the Speaker’s conferees are all opponents of the payroll tax cut,” he said. “I feel for Speaker Boehner because he didn’t choose this path; the extreme bloc within his caucus did, but they’re far down a dead-end path.”

Meanwhile, in a letter to Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote that Democrats have already compromised by dropping a surtax on millionaires and called once again for the House to vote on the Senate-passed bill.

“There is still time to call the House back and pass the short-term extension bill that received 89 bipartisan votes in the U.S. Senate,” she wrote. “I am hopeful that reason will prevail in your Conference and that we can secure a bipartisan, long-term bill after the first of the year.”

Meredith Shiner contributed to this report.

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