John Boehner, the typically implacable House Republican leader, made headlines Sunday by expressing his willingness to compromise on extending the Bush-era income tax cuts. "If the only option I have is to vote for some of those tax reductions," he said, "I'll vote for them."
Boehner's shift from the GOP's default position -- keep all the tax cuts, even for the richest Americans -- was quickly greeted as opening the door to compromise and deflating a campaign issue for the Democrats and President Obama, who has derided Republicans for holding continued middle-class tax cuts hostage.
Clever or not, Boehner was acknowledging political reality in the House of Representatives, where the Democratic majority sets the agenda. But his fellow Republican House leaders declined to fall in line and then on Monday Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, big-footed Boehner by introducing a bill to continue all the tax cuts indefinitely.
The tab for that, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, is $680 billion over the next decade, most of which would benefit the richest one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans.
Ignoring that quibble, McDonnell sought to capitalize on discord among Democrats -- at least five Democratic senators favor a temporary extension of them all -- by in effect daring them to raise taxes.
Although McConnell lacks the votes to pass his measure, he controls enough to support a filibuster, which can stymie action or bend legislation to suit his wishes.
Brinkmanship has its limits, though. Absent congressional action, all the tax cuts will expire on Dec. 31.
The Boehner-McConnell two-step is merely the opening move in a high-stakes political game likely to occupy Washington until year's end. The spiraling deficit and tax fairness argue against continuing to coddle the richest, but the Democrats are even more skittish than usual in what looks like a bleak election year.