WASHINGTON — Now that Mitt Romney has emerged as the likely GOP presidential nominee, congressional Republicans increasingly are taking their cues from him even if it causes grumbling among conservatives unhappy about having to beat a retreat.

That dynamic was on display last week as House Speaker John Boehner coped with the dust-up generated by President Barack Obama over student loans and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell sidestepped Democratic attempts to brand Republicans as soft on the issue of violence against women.

It’s a defensive game for Republicans, determined to avoid their stumbles 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 were on the back burner until barely a week ago when the White House elevated it to the top of its agenda. Obama pounded away during visits to campuses in North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado, pivotal states in the November election.

Rates are scheduled to double, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent, on July 1 due to 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 had arrived at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Boehner set a vote, using unspent money from Obama’s health-care law to pay for it.