By Russell Berman and Molly K. Hooper - 11/30/12 11:00 AM EST
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said he’d never been so popular.
The five-term Oklahoma Republican had earned himself a day or more in the national media spotlight by broaching an idea that had been anathema to his party for more than two years: He said publicly that he was pushing House GOP leaders to support an extension of George W. Bush-era tax rates only on income up to $250,000.
“I’ve never heard so many people say such nice things about me who disagreed with me so violently,” Cole said during a pair of interviews with The Hill.
Cole’s call for the House to bow to President Obama’s demand to lock in the middle-class tax rates marked the first and most significant fissure among House Republicans since the election three weeks ago. For years, Republicans have insisted that the Bush-era tax rates must be extended all or none, refusing Democratic demands to split off middle and lower income brackets.
Democrats rejoiced, hoping the move represented a crack in the GOP dam that would lead to an irreversible cascade on the flashpoint of taxes.
Republicans, however, recoiled.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) promptly slapped down the idea, and rank-and-file conservatives said it would gain no traction in the House GOP conference.
Asked if the legislation could pass the House, chief deputy whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) replied, “No.”
A member of the GOP whip team, Cole, 63, said he first made his position known to party leaders two weeks ago and that he reiterated it during a private meeting on Tuesday when House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) solicited opinions of those in the room.
Cole insisted that it was someone else who leaked his comments to the press, leading many House Republicans to believe it was a deliberate trial balloon by the leadership.
“I didn’t go public with it,” he said. “Someone else wanted it out there.”
Cole denied that anyone in leadership, including Boehner, “put him up to do it.”
"Absolutely not true — when's the first time that Boehner would put me up to say something?" Cole said.
The longtime Republican strategist served for two years as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2007 and 2008. While he butted heads with Boehner over staffing during that period, he has remained close to the Speaker and praised him as a negotiator.
“This is not some big division or split,” Cole said. He noted that he had backed Boehner on all of the major negotiations during the 112th Congress, and he said when the Speaker brings back a deal on the fiscal cliff, “I’d be very surprised if I don’t support him again.”
According to several connected GOP sources, conservatives in the conference were “surprised” by Cole’s idea and were “not so sure it was him doing it."
Asked about Cole’s push to extend the middle-class rates, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the outgoing conference chairman, said, “I don’t think Cole is pushing it.”
Yet once Cole’s position was made public, he did not shy away from defending it. He spoke to reporters from several publications and appeared on cable networks on Thursday and into Friday morning.
Cole said his position was a matter of political strategy, not a shift in his views on taxes. He remains opposed to any increase in tax rates, but he reasons that because Republicans already agree that taxes should not go up on middle class families, they should pass the bill and “move on to a debate much more favorable to us.”
"I'd like to think I understand political reality," he said.
Acting on the middle-class rates would eliminate a chief Democratic talking point, potentially allowing Republicans to leverage an increase in the debt limit for concessions from Obama on spending cuts, entitlement reform and tax rates for the wealthy.
Cole and other Republicans want to avoid a repeat of the payroll tax fight from a year ago, when the House GOP held out on extending the tax cut until just before Christmas, only to capitulate at the last minute after being abandoned by Senate Republicans. The House approved a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut by unanimous consent after members had left town, outraging many conservatives.
Cole told The Hill that McCarthy invited him to offer his idea again at the whip meeting this week after Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) had asked how Republicans could make sure they did suffer the same political fate as a year ago. Cole and other sources present said reaction in the meeting was mixed, with some members voicing support and others opposing.
When the matter was broached among the entire GOP conference on Wednesday morning, the reaction was similar, a source in the room told The Hill.
"The [Republican Study Committee] wet their pants and the rest of the membership thought it was fascinating that somebody told the truth,” the source said, referring to the largest bloc of conservatives in the House.
For his part, Cole was good-natured about the leak of his comments and Boehner's rebuke.
Cole called it “very funny” that Boehner prefaced his disagreement by telling the Republican conference, “I love Tom, he's one of my best buddies, but I don't agree with everything [he says.]”
When the floor opened for comments, Cole said that he rose to explain how he did not intend to make his remarks public but because they had been leaked, he wasn’t going to back away from them.
Then he joked with the Speaker.
“I said, 'Mr. Speaker, one thing I’ll say that I know, is that you're going to negotiate the best deal there is and you're going to bring it back,’ he said. “And he told us earlier that it's going be a hard vote, so I said, 'When you tell me you're going to negotiate a deal, and I'm not going to like a lot of it, it's going to be a really hard vote, I know you are telling the truth because you've done it to me several times!"
“Well, the place broke up, even the Speaker was laughing at that, too,” the veteran lawmaker said.