Is Mitt Romney about to approach a rough patch — one caused by his own party? House Republicans are about to do two things that could prove an albatross to Romney’s presidential bid.
Item One: The clock is ticking down on the deadline for extending the payroll tax cut, unemployment insurance benefits, and the Doc Fix, with the extenders bill and how to pay for it likely to dominate Congressional news for the next couple of weeks. That’s the bill, remember, that everyone agreed was a millstone for Congressional Republicans last time it came around. Why? Because Democrats preferred a (very popular) tax increase for rich taxpayers to pay for it, while Republicans floundered around, sometimes opposing the extension altogether, sometimes claiming that a longer extension was needed, but never really getting their act together. Republicans are again opposing the Dem push to pay for the extension by closing corporate tax loopholes or raising taxes on the wealthy.
Item Two: Next week is budget week, with the president submitting his proposal and Paul Ryan putting forward a GOP plan — complete with all the unpopular provisions, including Medicare changes, which sapped Republican momentum last spring.
In other words, just as Mitt Romney is getting ready to transform himself into a more moderate general election candidate, he’s going to have to deal with the voice of the 2011 Republicans — the House of Representatives. And that’s a voice that the American people aren’t very fond of, as the scraping-bottom approval ratings show.
What’s more, Romney has already struggled to articulate his positions on these issues — showing that he, too, understands their toxicity. He didn’t take a final position on the Ryan Medicare plan until December, months and months after it had been unveiled. And he’s flip flopped all around on the payroll tax cut. The reasons are clear: these are both issues where conservative orthodoxy is on one side, and the bulk of the American people tell pollsters that they’re on the other side. As long as he still has to remain engaged in primaries and caucuses, Romney has to stick with the conservative line on everything, and so when unpopular conservative positions are in the news, he’s going to take hits.
Here’s where the Tea Party, and Tea Party Members of the House, may really matter. House Republicans aren’t going to enact Medicare reforms this year, and are likely to suffer another defeat on the payroll tax cut extension. You can be sure the House GOP leadership knows this — and would perhaps prefer to duck both these fights. How? By reaching some sort of compromise on the extenders bill, and by getting Ryan to write a budget that doesn’t try to end Medicare as we know it, and instead is designed to score general election rhetorical points. But with 50 or so conservative Members insisting on radicalism, and dozens of others afraid to oppose the radicals and risk getting a RINO tag, the House is apparently preparing to dive off a cliff again. Even if that means that Romney will go over the side with them.