GOP: Forget tax rates in talks on the deficit, let’s look at spending

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday shot down a proposal by a senior GOP lawmaker that the House agree to President Obama’s demand to extend middle-class tax rates as Republicans sought to put the focus of negotiations on spending.

The Speaker’s swift rejection of an idea floated by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a respected party strategist and former chairman of the House GOP campaign committee, came as Republicans voiced increasing concerns that the debate over the so-called “fiscal cliff” had become dominated by talk of taxes rather than spending.

Comparing the nation’s spending crisis to a “freight train,” Boehner said “it’s time for the president and Democrats to get serious about the spending problem that our country has.”

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Republicans complained that for all of the president’s talk about coming up with a “balanced” budget plan that includes new tax revenue, spending cuts and entitlement reforms, he has made little effort to identify specific proposals beyond increasing taxes on the wealthy.

“The White House has not produced any of the balance in the president’s described balanced proposal,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the House GOP’s chief deputy whip and a former colleague of Obama’s in the Illinois Senate.

Boehner and other House Republican leaders will meet on Thursday with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and the White House’s chief congressional liaison, Rob Nabors, to discuss the fiscal cliff. But Boehner spokesman Michael Steel made clear that the Speaker expected specifics from the two men.

“We accepted this meeting with the expectation that the White House team will bring a specific plan for real spending cuts,” Steel said, “because spending cuts that Washington Democrats will accept is what is missing from the ‘balanced approach’ that the president says he wants.”

Talks to stave off the full range of tax increases and spending cuts at year’s end have made little apparent progress since Obama met with congressional leaders at the White House on Nov. 16, his only face-to-face meeting with them since he won a second term.

Both sides have taken their messages to the public. Obama will travel to Pennsylvania to campaign for his plan Friday, after holding a White House event with middle-class taxpayers on Wednesday, during which he advised people to call their representatives to urge them to act now to extend current tax rates for family income up to $250,000.

Republicans have met with small-business owners and leaders of the “Fix the Debt” coalition of CEOs and civic leaders to argue that current tax rates should be extended across the board.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said there had been “an obsession with the tax equation.”

“But it is two parts of a scissors, if you will,” he said, referring to revenue increases and spending cuts. “You’ve got to have both of them.”

Yet the post-election focus on tax revenue is partly the GOP’s own doing.

It was Boehner, on the day after Obama’s reelection victory, who delivered a formal speech to announce that Republicans would accept new revenues — but not higher rates — in a fiscal deal, if they were coupled with significant spending cuts and entitlement reforms.

Since then, the public debate has remained centered on taxes, and that escalated on Wednesday after Cole, a member of the GOP whip team, made headlines by confirming that he told party leaders privately that he believed the House should act soon to pass an extension of tax rates for the middle class — exactly what Obama has asked Congress to do.

Cole told reporters that if it were up to him, he would hold a vote soon on extending the tax rates for family income under $250,000 a year.

“I don’t see any advantage in delay,” Cole said. “I think the appropriate thing is to make sure that places where we know we’re not going to raise taxes, we get those taken care of first. I don’t think that somehow weakens our position in negotiations.”

Such a move would amount to a significant victory for Obama in negotiations on the so-called fiscal cliff, and Republican leaders said immediately that it was a non-starter.

“I told Tom earlier in our conference meeting that I disagreed with him,” Boehner told reporters after a closed-door meeting of the House Republican Conference. “He’s a wonderful friend of mine and a great supporter of mine. But raising taxes on the so-called top 2 percent — half of those people are small-business owners that pay their taxes through their personal income tax filing every year. The goal here is to grow the economy and to cut spending.”

Boehner stuck to the party’s long-held insistence that the rates for middle income not be separated from those on top earners.

“We’re not going to grow the economy if we raise tax rates on the top-2 rates,” the Speaker added. “It’ll hurt small businesses. It’ll hurt our economy. That’s why it’s not the right approach. We’re willing to put revenue on the table as long as we’re not raising rates.”

Cole said in an interview that he first told party leaders of his view two weeks ago but reiterated it in a meeting of the whip team on Tuesday after Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) solicited opinions.

“Nothing I’ve heard in the last two weeks has made me change my mind,” Cole said in the interview.

He said reaction to his idea was mixed, though he would not disclose which other members agreed with him. And Cole said he did not intend to make public what he said in the meeting.

“Somebody decided that they wanted to put it out there,” he said.

Republican leadership aides insisted that Cole’s view was not widely shared in the conference and that it was not designed as a trial balloon amid negotiations with Democrats. Cole has been a Boehner ally who regularly supports the leadership. He said that while any eventual deal would be “a tough vote for the conference,” he expected to support whatever agreement the Speaker negotiates.

“This is not a disagreement about what we want to accomplish,” said Cole, who continued to stress that he wanted to extend all current tax rates. “It’s just a discussion about what the best tactics are.”

While Cole said he had support within the conference for his position, the public blowback from other Republicans was fast and fierce.

“I don’t think there’s any appetite for that position,” the outgoing chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas), told The Hill. He called Cole a “wise and talented member” of the conference but said tax increases “destroy jobs.”

Sessions said positions on both sides have hardened in recent days. “The president’s solidified his position, and we have, too,” he said.

A senior House conservative, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), called Cole’s suggestion “absurd.”

An outspoken freshman conservative, Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), went so far as to suggest that Cole was a member of the Republican establishment that had contributed to the nation’s spending problems in the first place.

“I think he’s wrong,” Labrador said. “I think most of the conference thinks he’s wrong. He’s a good man who has served here for a long time, but he is also a man who has voted for a lot of the increased spending in Washington, D.C. They are the ones who were here causing all the problems we are facing.”