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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.

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 Coburn (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 Corker (Tenn.) was just reelected, and this debate could be a far-off memory by his next campaign.

Reps. Kay Granger (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 Chambliss (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 Paul (R-Ky.) and Reps. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and John Fleming (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.