Republican centrists split over plan to extend only middle-class tax rates

Several House Republicans say the party should consider extending current tax rates for the middle class — but not all of them agree with Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) that a vote should come now.

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Cole, a member of the GOP whip team, made waves earlier this week by disclosing that he had privately pushed party leaders to hold a vote on legislation locking in tax rates on annual family income up to $250,000. President Obama has insisted on the move.  

Conservatives want all current tax rates extended and don't want to pass a bill that extends rates for most taxpayers while allowing them to rise for some.

A number of more centrist Republicans, however, have signaled they are open to the idea of extending tax rates only for the middle class. 

The thinking behind the strategy is that Republicans will find themselves boxed in at year’s end if negotiations to avert the “fiscal cliff” have stalled and Democrats are pressuring the GOP to pass legislation to protect 98 percent of taxpayers from a marginal rate hike.

“I don’t want to be in a position, at the end of the month, where because of inaction, or I should say because of a breakdown in negotiations, the only thing the Senate is able to do is to send over what they send over, which will be extending the tax rates for everybody by whatever percent,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said in an interview.

The Senate has already approved an extension of tax rates up to the $250,000 threshold. Obama has said he would veto any bill that keeps the current rate for income above that level.

“I don’t want to be in that position, and I think that was the point Cole was making,” Dent said. “That’s not my preference, but we’d rather not deal with that situation on Dec. 30.”

Cole said he stated his position during a private meeting of the whip team earlier this week, after Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) solicited opinions from lawmakers. 

According to another person in the room, three other Republicans — Reps. Tom Reed (N.Y.), Jo Bonner (Ala.) and Dent — spoke up to support Cole’s position.

Dent and Reed both denied that was the case. 

Reed said he was speaking up on the need to consider revenues so that the debate could move on to the question of entitlement reform.

Dent said he did not support bringing up the middle class tax bill now. But he was concerned that Republicans would find themselves in the same position as they were during the payroll tax fight a year ago, when they were forced to agree at the last minute to a two-month extension because the Senate had already left town.

“I don’t want to do anything like that right now. I want to give negotiations a chance,” Dent said.

Referring to last year’s payroll tax fight, he said: “I’m trying to avert that situation as much as possible.”

Bonner did not respond to requests for comment. 

Reps. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) and Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) have also voiced support for Cole’s position in recent days.

Freshman Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.), who was defeated in her bid for reelection, echoed Dent. She said the House GOP should not act now on the Senate bill but may need to do so in a couple of weeks.

“It would be nice if we had this resolved right now. But we still have a couple of weeks in which we are absolutely on the job,” she said.

Thus far, House GOP leaders have given no indication they are considering Cole’s suggestion. 

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) shot it down immediately. During a colloquy on the House floor Friday, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he did not intend to bring it up for a vote.

While the bill itself does not raise taxes, Republicans have long considered legislation that splits off the middle income rates from the upper income rates to be a de facto tax increase. It would allow rates for the wealthy to go up without further action.

Reps. Steve LaTourette (Ohio) and Mike Simpson (Idaho) — two Republicans who have been seen as among the most likely to agree to higher taxes in a fiscal deal — opposed Cole’s strategy.

“I think he’s wrong,” LaTourette said. 

He added later that agreeing to Obama’s demand was “a chump deal” because it presumed that Republicans would still be able to extract concessions from Democrats on spending cuts and entitlement reform in future negotiations.

“It is a little bit like looking in the yellow pages, hiring somebody to remodel your kitchen, giving them a down payment and when you call back, the number's been disconnected and he's in Florida with your dough,” LaTourette said.

The Ohio lawmaker, who is retiring at the end of the year, said he had rebuffed a Republican who approached him with a proposal to find about 30 Republicans to join with House Democrats and pass the middle class tax bill. 

He would not say who came to him with the idea.

“I said that’s stupid,” LaTourette said. “Maybe they are still working on it and they’ll find another pigeon."

Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said Friday she would launch a discharge petition to force a vote on the Senate bill if Republicans did not bring it to the floor.

LaTourette acknowledged that Obama had the upper hand because he was seen as protecting 98 percent of taxpayers from a tax hike, while Republicans were guarding the other 2 percent.

“Yeah, we’re on the wrong side any time we got a fight with 98 people on one team and two on another,” he said. “The ‘two’ team is probably not going to win. But we’ve got to keep that in play.”

Simpson said he could be persuaded to raise tax rates on the top 2 percent, but not without a simultaneous agreement of spending cuts from Democrats. “It’s got to be a united deal. They’ve got to be tied together,” he said. 

— Erik Wasson contributed.

--This article was originally published at 11:37 a.m. and last updated at 12:57 p.m.