Reporting from Washington — Republicans rolled out a confrontational, no-compromise strategy this week that may carry long-term risks, but has put them in position to dominate the lame-duck session of Congress and marginalize President Obama's agenda.
Among congressional Republicans, confidence levels are so high that they are barreling over what might be considered standard political traps. As they fight to preserve tax cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers, for instance, they are prepared to let unemployment insurance benefits run out for 2 million jobless Americans unless offsetting spending cuts can be found.
Republican Senate leaders on Wednesday threatened to derail a bill that had previously received bipartisan backing — a food-safety measure — on the grounds that nothing should move until a deal on tax cuts is reached.
The White House and congressional Democrats have been largely reduced to symbolic responses, such as House passage Thursday of an extension of middle-class tax cuts. Republicans in the Senate have vowed to block it because it did not include an extension for the wealthy.
The Democratic bill was greeted scornfully by Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R- Ohio), who described the exercise as "chicken crap."
The White House has little in its arsenal to force concessions from Republicans, especially at a time when a Democratic base dispirited by the GOP midterm rout is disengaged from the debate.
To be sure, the no-holds-barred approach to opposition isn't new to a party that proudly embraced a rallying cry of "Hell, no!" But the strategy on display was freshly emboldened by the midterms, and newly animated for the audience watching most closely — the tea party and conservative activists.
"There's a different mindset. Clearly, they feel buoyed by electoral support they read from the election," said Sarah Binder, an expert on governance and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "My guess is we'll continue to see this sort of bravado form House Republicans as long as there's agreement in the Republican conference."
On Thursday, House Democrats attempted to rebound as they dared Republicans to vote against a middle-class tax extension while holding out for tax breaks for wealthier households. But the Republicans stayed solid: Only three broke ranks and supported the Democratic proposal.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco), her voice hoarse in announcing the vote, said it was "grossly unfair" that Republicans voted against extending unemployment insurance that expired this week while supporting tax breaks for millionaires.
"I can't imagine that my colleagues on the other side don't want to give a tax cut for the middle class," said. "Why don't they vote for that?"
If all the tax cuts expire without action as scheduled Dec. 31, Democrats would consider that outcome a disaster. But it's not clear Republicans hold the same view — or have the same incentive to cut a deal in a lame-duck session.
If the tax cuts expire, Republican leaders have promised to make restoring a tax break their first priority when they return in January. With a majority in the House and increased numbers in the Senate, they're likely to get a better deal. Meanwhile, the Democrats are more likely to face blame for the deadlock in the lame-duck session, where they have majorities in both houses.
"It's very hard for the public to hold parties accountable in a period of divided government," Binder said. "If anything, most voters hold the president accountable, and the president's party. I don't think the public is so sophisticated and close watchers of Congress to know who is giving in to whom."
There is, however, a group of voters watching especially closely right now. The followers of the "tea party" movement did not skip a beat in shifting from electioneering to legislative monitoring. Major organizations have launched accountability projects, aimed at watching Congress closely and keeping the pressure on, particularly on tax and spending issues.
"So far, we're pleased with what we've seen," said Max Pappas, vice president of policy at FreedomWorks, a Washington-based advocacy group active in the tea party movement. FreedomWorks opposes extending the unemployment benefits, arguing the payments keep the jobless from accepting work and thus keep the unemployment rate high.
The group also had urged senators to reject the Food Safety Modernization Act, describing it as an example of federal intrusion that will "grant the federal government unprecedented control over our diets while not making our food any safer."
In a sign that some common ground still exists between the parties, the bill passed with 15 Republican votes. But when a clerical error threatened to force a revote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested he would filibuster the bill — along with any others that didn't address the tax cuts.
Republicans do run a risk of overreach, and insiders say Boehner and McConnell have looked at past case studies for cautionary tales. Although some on the right have called for Republicans to threaten government shutdown — as in 1995 — Boehner has not condoned the tactic.
Staff writer Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.