Safe Republicans open to raising top tax rates

More than a dozen Republican lawmakers have expressed an openness to letting the tax rates for the wealthy expire at the end of the year.

But the issue remains a sticking point in negotiations to avoid the “fiscal cliff” because a large majority of Republicans in Congress face political ramifications if rates go up.

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Most of those who have deviated from party orthodoxy on taxes will likely not face any political consequences for doing so. Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Rep. Steven LaTourette (Ohio) are retiring this year, and Reps. Robert Dold (Ill.), Mary Bono Mack (Calif.) and Charlie Bass (N.H.) were all defeated this cycle. Sen. Tom CoburnTom CoburnCongress, stop using our nation's military policy for political purposes Congress must rid itself of political 'pork' to preserve its integrity 'Path of least resistance' problematic for Congress MORE (Okla.) has said he will not seek another term.

Even those lawmakers who will likely run again are considered safe from backlash on the issue: Sen. Bob CorkerBob CorkerThe Hill's 12:30 Report Iran nuclear deal still under threat — US must keep its end of the bargain Senate heads to new healthcare vote with no clear plan MORE (Tenn.) was just reelected, and this debate could be a far-off memory by his next campaign.

Reps. Kay GrangerKay GrangerGOP lawmaker: No town halls because of threats against lawmakers Surprise war vote points to shift in GOP Foreign Affairs say war authorization amendment was 'out of order' MORE (Texas) and Tom Cole (Okla.), who was the first and most prominent Republican in the House to shift on taxes, both breezed through their primaries this past cycle and easily won reelection.

Though Grover Norquist’s no-new-tax pledge has been losing signatories, a large majority of the House Republican Conference has signed it, and the tax issue remains potent in the party.

Norquist told Reuters that expressing support for allowing taxes to rise on the wealthy is not a punishable offense.

“Thinking something out loud is not treason,” he said, noting that despite “impure thoughts” from some lawmakers, like Sen. Saxby ChamblissSaxby ChamblissFormer GOP senator: Let Dems engage on healthcare bill OPINION: Left-wing politics will be the demise of the Democratic Party GOP hopefuls crowd Georgia special race MORE (R-Ga.), “nobody has voted for a tax increase.”

Those votes, though, would fit handily into the 30-second attack ads that endlessly populate the airwaves during campaign season, and could cause some Republicans to face challenges from the right.

The slow shift in the Republican Party on the issue is a stark reminder of the politics always hidden below the surface of policymaking. The issue has cropped up again and again in policy fights, said University of Virginia Center for Politics Director Larry Sabato, with lawmakers who vote in favor of a compromise often getting ousted by a further-right candidate.

“[Republicans] aren’t worried at all about a general election, regardless of how they vote on taxes. They’re worried about a challenge in the primary,” he said.

Many Republicans come from deep-red districts and are unlikely to face a strong challenge from a Democrat. But as Tea Party Rep. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.) told The Hill, the redder the district, the more worried a Republican should be about his or her vote in favor of tax increases.

“I couldn’t identify an individual — I would just say, the more Republican that district is, the more likely they’re going to get primaried by people,” he said.

Huelskamp joined Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulThe Hill's 12:30 Report Senate heads to new healthcare vote with no clear plan Overnight Healthcare: CBO predicts 22M would lose coverage under Senate ObamaCare replacement MORE (R-Ky.) and Reps. Paul BrounPaul BrounCalifornia lawmaker's chief of staff resigns after indictment Republican candidates run against ghost of John Boehner The Trail 2016: Let’s have another debate! MORE (R-Ga.), Louie GohmertLouie GohmertSteve King compares military pay for gender transition to Ottoman's castrating slaves House passes 6.5B defense policy bill Budget process drags as GOP struggles for consensus MORE (R-Texas) and John FlemingJohn FlemingCoast Guard suspends search for missing Ohio plane Freedom Caucus member to bring up bill on impeaching IRS chief GOP seeks to make it 52 MORE (R-La.) at an event organized this week by a Tea Party organization to release petitions calling for Congress to prevent taxes from increasing on anyone.

Broun has been named as a possible primary challenger to Chambliss, who has expressed openness to new taxes. Broun was asked at the press conference about a potential 2014 run and didn’t rule it out.

“This is not about a race in 2014,” he said, according to the National Review, and then went on to shift the discussion back to the tax issue.

But Huelskamp said on Thursday what Broun did not: that some lawmakers, if they do end up going on the record with votes to allow tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, will face primary challenges.

“I think all of my colleagues are smart enough to see that. They should be, let’s put it that way. I shouldn’t have to tell them that, and I really think if they end up voting that way we’re definitely going to see a lot of people primaried by Tea Party candidates,” he said.