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Competing Democratic and Republican proposals to extend (and in the former case, expand) the payroll tax cut for workers enacted at the start of this year each received roll call votes in the Senate this week, and while the Democratic plan gained majority support only to fall short of the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster, the more interesting numbers were on the Republican plan. There, senators facing potentially tough general election fights like Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Dean Heller in Nevada were more likely to back party leadership and support a payroll tax cut extension, even as a majority of Republicans rejected it.

The dynamic where leaders and senators who actually might face Democratic challengers find themselves diverging from rank-and-file conservatives played out over the summer when it took a lot of wrangling for John Boehner to pass a debt-ceiling increase in the GOP-controlled House.

And though Republican messaging has shifted in the past few days to emphasize that the Party does in fact support an extension of the payroll tax cut — and objects only to the Democratic means of paying for it (hiking taxes on income past $1 million) — most Republican senators in fact rejected their own party’s plan, laying stark the conservative movement’s opposition to tax cuts except when the rich get the biggest share, as they did under George W. Bush in 2001 and again in 2003.

The failure of Republicans to back an extension opens up vulnerable senators to charges of hypocrisy, especially in a political environment of resurgent populism and where Republicans are even more likely than Democrats and Independents to support extending the payroll tax breaks.

It would appear there will be more legislative brinkmanship, Republicans threatening to allow taxes to rise on workers and the middle class unless they get to gut environmental rules. Under Obama, they’ve learned they can get what they want this way.

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