Finally. After a year of artful camouflage and concealment, Republicans let us glimpse the rift between establishment pragmatists and tea party ideologues. There may be hope for the republic after all.

Forty Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined Democrats in voting for compromise legislation providing a two-month extension of unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut. The bill passed by 89-10, the kind of margin usually reserved for ceremonial resolutions in favor of motherhood. Senators clearly were confident that House approval would quickly follow.

But it didn’t, because House Speaker John Boehner couldn’t get his tea party freshmen to go along. The result was a kind of intramural sniping among Republicans that we haven’t seen in years.

“It angers me that House Republicans would rather continue playing politics than find solutions,” said Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts. The stalemate “is harming the Republican Party,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona. “Are Republicans getting killed now in public opinion? There’s no question,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who urged House Republicans to just “get it over with.”

But Boehner hung tough, not out of principle but because he had no palatable choice. He didn’t dare bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote, fearing that non-tea party members of the GOP caucus might defect. So he did nothing for four long days — and let the Republican Party be portrayed as so out-to-lunch that it would blithely raise taxes on 160 million Americans. The week before Christmas. As we roll into an election year.

The thing is, this portrayal is quite accurate, at least as it pertains to the tea party faction. More sensible Republicans have been so eager to take advantage of the tea party’s energy and emotion that they have essentially allowed the inmates to run the asylum. You will recall that it was the GOP, led by the tea party types, that threatened to send the Treasury into default last summer rather than approve a routine and necessary increase in the debt ceiling.

In the current imbroglio, nothing resembling a principle was involved. Boehner said that House Republicans wanted to extend the payroll tax cut for an entire year, rather than just two months. But even if you accept his claim at face value, it ignores the fact that the two-month deal was approved by the Senate for one reason only: to allow time for negotiation of a one-year extension.

In other words, the measure that House Republicans were so reluctant to pass, or even vote on, was crafted as a step toward the specific outcome that House Republicans claimed was their goal.

Boehner’s calls for compromise were absurd. The Senate bill was itself a bipartisan compromise, reached after tough bargaining and many concessions. Democrats abandoned their proposal for an income tax surcharge on those earning more than $1 million a year. President Obama accepted a rider forcing him to make a decision on the controversial Keystone pipeline project before the November election. Republicans had already won the negotiation — until zealots in the House threatened to scuttle the whole thing.

McConnell maintained a steely silence until Thursday, then built a ladder for Boehner to climb down. He proposed that the House promptly enact a “short-term” extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance while at the same time working on a one-year measure. Within hours, the House caved.

This glimpse of honest debate among Republicans won’t last long, I predict. They’ll try their best to resume the practice of absolute anti-Obama unity, which has worked quite well for them. But no one can erase what voters have seen this week, and it wasn’t pretty.

There are only two possible reasons for House Republicans to behave the way they did. Maybe they are so blinded by ideology that they no longer care about the impact their actions might have on struggling American families. Or maybe their only guiding principle is that anything Obama supports, they oppose.

The week’s events offer a lesson for Obama, too. One reason for all the Republican angst was that public opinion has become more sensitive to issues of economic justice. This may be partly due to the Occupy protests. But I’m convinced that Obama’s fiery barnstorming in favor of his American Jobs Act has played a big role. People are hearing his message.

The president has been on the offensive. It’s no coincidence that for the first time in quite a while, Republicans are backing up.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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