Buried in this big New York Times piece on the continuing war over the payroll tax cut extension is a telling detail:

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said Tuesday that she had suggested a tax increase on high earners that protected employers from that burden. “I don’t think we should be imposing additional taxes on working families at a time when the economy is so fragile,” she said.

Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, said his party’s plan could involve a small increase in taxes for some high-income people who meet certain criteria.

In other words, senators Collins and Roberts are looking for a way to support the millionaire surtax, or something like it.

Let’s not overstate this. There’s no chance that a significant number of Republicans will drop their opposition to the surtax. But the fact that these Senators are looking for ways around their party’s lockstep opposition to high end tax hikes could signal which way public opinion is heading. Note that Collins is adopting the Dem framing of the issue, acknowledging that not extending the payroll tax cut would constitute a tax hike on working people that would be harmful to the recovery.

Indeed, as Politico reports today, Republicans are worried that they’re losing the message war over jobs. In a striking admission, Senator John Cornyn said: “We’re trying to show some flexibility and good faith so that voters will see that we’re not being intransigent but that we’re trying to offer good ideas and come up with solutions.”

That’s basically a concession from the pragmatic wing of the party that Republicans have found themselves on the wrong side of the jobs debate.

Separately, this gives me a chance to highlight what’s at stake here in a new way — by looking at it through the lens of individual Senators.

For instance, if you look at the state by state breakdown of that Citizens for Tax Justice study, it turns out that the millionaire surtax would hit only 375 Maine taxpayers, each of whom would pay on average an additional 1/50th of their income in taxes.

By contrast, according to new Treasury Department figures, the payroll tax cut extension would benefit around 800,000 of Collins’ working constituents.

In Pat Roberts’ Kansas, some 1,345 wealthy taxpayers would be hit by the millionaire surtax, to the tune of 1/50th more on average of their income, while 1.6 million of his working consituents would benefit from the extension.

The Dem payroll tax cut push has created the starkest choice yet for individual Senators. Either a tiny group of their wealthy constituents pay more than they do now, or a huge number of their working constituents pay more than they do now. Does it get any clearer than this?