Lack of rank-and-file House GOP backlash hints at softening on taxes

Republicans appeared Tuesday to be moving reluctantly toward a debt deal that would increase revenues, one day after Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) offered up $800 billion in tax collection in the fiscal-cliff negotiations.

While outside conservative groups lambasted the new leadership proposal as a tax hike, many rank-and-file House Republicans signaled they were open to it, even if they were not ready to commit their full support.

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The lack of immediate backlash within the conference is a key early sign for Boehner, who has made intraparty unity a priority as he seeks the strongest possible hand in negotiations over the “fiscal cliff” with President Obama. The Speaker won support for the $2.2 trillion deficit-reduction offer from his entire senior leadership team, as well as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the 2012 vice presidential nominee and conservative darling.

“I think that Speaker Boehner is the one who has conducted himself as an adult in the whole discussion,” said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), the conservative president of the GOP’s restive freshman class, who voted against the debt-ceiling deal the Speaker negotiated in 2011. 

Boehner’s offer, delivered Monday in a three-page letter to Obama, won a fast thumbs-down both from Democrats and from several conservative organizations and leaders. Heritage Action announced it would rally its members against the plan, while another right-wing group, Americans for Prosperity, said it “left conservatives wanting.”

A leading Senate conservative with close ties to Tea Party groups, Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), labeled the proposal an “$800 billion tax hike” that would “destroy American jobs and allow politicians in Washington to spend even more, while not reducing our $16 trillion debt by a single penny.”

The outgoing chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee in the House, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), told The Hill that the GOP leadership’s proposal is “a lot better than the president’s, but it’s still a tax increase, so that’s not going to help grow the economy when you are raising taxes.” 

In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised Boehner for putting forward the offer but notably declined to endorse it.

Top House Republicans largely shrugged off the conservative opposition, and one leadership aide said it would boost the credibility of Boehner’s offer. “It points to the fact that we’ve put a serious offer on the table — serious compromise,” the aide said. The aide noted that the White House “isn’t facing any backlash” from the left on its offer from last week, which called for $1.6 trillion in tax increases.

Asked by The Hill whether he had any response to the conservatives criticizing his plan, Boehner replied, “No.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the newly elected House GOP conference chairwoman, said the proposal was “a work in progress” but that conservative critics “need to be constructive.”

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) said he “absolutely” would support Boehner’s proposal and that the White House had not given Republicans enough credit for making a concession on new tax revenues after the election. Obama on Tuesday said there would not be a deal if Republicans did not agree to higher tax rates on the wealthy.

Echoing the complaints of Republican leaders, Rooney said that while the GOP had given ground on revenues, the White House had not made a similar move on entitlement reform or significant spending cuts. 

“Good faith is good faith,” he said. “If we give a little, you’ve got to give a little. That’s how it works.”

Rooney said he “disagreed” with conservatives who labeled Boehner’s offer a tax increase, and he noted that his openness to raising revenue through closing loopholes and limiting deductions was different from the response he would have given six months ago to the same plan.

While there was no sign of rebellion, the reaction among rank-and-file Republicans fell well short of a full-on embrace of Boehner’s proposal, and it remains to be seen how lawmakers would respond if the Speaker eventually increases his offer of revenue or bends on the crucial flashpoint of tax rates.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Tuesday was seen escorting two members of the Republican Study Committee, Reps. Scott Garrett (N.J.) and Tom Graves (Ga.), in for a meeting. Graves said that he was going there to press his case for a deficit plan based more heavily on spending cuts, and indicated he was not happy with Boehner’s proposal. 

“It’s a start, but my concern is that this is turning into ‘Who’s going to raise taxes the least?’ And that’s a problem,” Graves said.

Scott said he would have to see how Boehner’s proposal would be scored by the Congressional Budget Office, and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), just elected to the Senate, said he was also studying the details.

Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), recently elected to the House GOP leadership team, said that most members hadn’t seen details on how the $800 billion in revenue would be collected. But Lankford reiterated that it was important to Republicans to stand strong against tax-rate increases.

“I think most people don’t know what it is on all the details,” Lankford said when asked if conservatives were grumbling about the Boehner offer. “There is some frustration because people want to see real cuts. I’m from that perspective as well.”

 — Erik Wasson, Molly K. Hooper, Bernie Becker and Alexander Bolton contributed to this report.