WASHINGTON (AP) — As Mitt Romney has emerged as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Republicans in Congress are increasingly taking their cues from him — even if it causes heartburn and grumbling among conservatives unhappy about having to beat a tactical retreat.
That dynamic was on full display last week as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, moved to defuse a student loan grenade President Barack Obama threw at them. And Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky sidestepped attempts by Democrats to tag Republicans as soft on violence against women.
It's a defensive game for Republicans, who are determined to avoid the kinds of stumbles they endured last year when they lost the political battle over renewing Obama's payroll tax cut.
"Some folks in an election year would say you need to take tough issues off the table," said Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga. "Other folks in an election year say you need to bring your best solutions to the toughest issues, and I'm in that latter camp."
Student loan interest rates was a back-burner issue until the White House lit it up barely a week ago and put it at the top of its agenda with a two-day Obama campaign swing to three university campuses in North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado, all early tossup states in the November election.
Interest rates are scheduled to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1 due to a quirk in a law Democrats muscled through Congress five years ago.
Romney on Monday endorsed the $6 billion move to forestall the interest rate increase, even before Obama set foot on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. Boehner quickly slated a vote — tapping unspent money from Obama's unpopular health care law to pay for it — and by Friday, the issue was mostly deflated.
The vote, however, put Republicans crosswise with the Club For Growth, which urged lawmakers to oppose the legislation. The group sometimes uses its fundraising muscle to back primary challengers to GOP incumbents.
In a remarkable performance on Thursday, Boehner accused Obama of manufacturing the issue.
"The president keeps attempting to invent these fake fights because he doesn't have a record of success or a positive agenda for our country," the speaker said. "It is as simple as this: The emperor has no clothes."
In fact, Republicans had invited the battle by failing to address the issue before Obama raised it. Their budget blueprint last month assumed the interest rate subsidy would expire. And while the GOP chairman of the House Education Committee was working on a longer-term plan, Boehner stepped in forcefully to take the issue off the campaign table.
"I think they're doing a good job of seeing when pitches are coming at their head," said GOP strategist John Feehery of Quinn Gillespie & Associates.
However, Feehery added, "You can't just be on defense all the time. You've got to be on offense, too. The Republicans are better off when they're trying to pin Obama down on things as opposed to when they're trying to avoid haymakers from Obama."
Opportunities to go on offense are limited since Republicans control only the House.
Holding both the White House and a Senate majority, Democrats have more opportunity to set the political agenda. The Violence Against Women Act had been renewed twice without opposition in the Senate, but Democrats this year opted to make it a broader battle for women's votes.
With a handful of GOP co-sponsors, they added new language making gay people and battered illegal immigrants eligible for the menu of programs funded by the anti-violence law, sparking opposition from many GOP conservatives.
"They specifically put things in there in an attempt to get us to vote 'no,'" said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.
Even as Democrats threatened to force an up-or-down vote on their preferred version — a step that could have put numerous Republicans on the wrong side of the issue — McConnell promised a speedy debate and won a key demand to have votes on two GOP alternatives, defusing the battle, at least for now.
So what's next?
Obama and Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York have more up their sleeve, including a pay equity bill opposed by Republican allies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Later, there could be potential Senate votes on extending expiring middle-class tax cuts. And if the Supreme Court strikes down Obama's health care law, Democrats would be poised to force votes on popular elements of the measure, including allowing children up to 26 years old to remain on their parents' health insurance.
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