Centrist Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said Wednesday that GOP senators' fear of the Tea Party has made it difficult for them to reach a deal with Democrats on the expiring Bush tax cuts.
Speaking at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, Nelson said that Republicans and Democrats have to put aside some of their differences to develop a plan for what to do with the tax cuts that expire at the end of 2010.
"The willingness to come across the aisle has to be there before we talk about the arguments," he said, adding later that "there is always a political risk of working with someone else in this environment."
Nelson said it could be hard for Republicans to enter those bipartisan talks, especially those "who are up in '12 or '14" and are wary of attracting a Tea Party opponent in the primary.
Republicans and Democrats have been stuck at an impasse over what to do with the expiring tax breaks. Democratic leaders want to extend the cuts for the middle class, but let the cuts for upper-income earners come to an end.
Some centrist Democrats, including Nelson, and all Republican lawmakers want to extend all of the cuts at least temporarily until the job market improves.
Nelson harped on the Tea Party wave in the 2010 midterm cycle in which two GOP incumbent senators were unseated by Tea Party-backed primary challengers in primary contests.
The Nebraska senator — who could face a tough reelection campaign in 2012 — named Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) as one lawmaker who was targeted by the Tea Party for his work with Democrats, specifically his negotiations with Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenCongress needs to step up on crypto, or Biden might crush it Democrats face growing storm over IRS reporting provision Best shot at narrowing racial homeownership gap at risk, progressives say MORE (D-Ore.) on healthcare legislation.
Several Republican senators who are up for reelection in 2012 could face primary challengers from the right: Olympia Snowe (Maine), Richard Lugar (Ind.), Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (Tenn.), Scott Brown (Mass.) and Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears MORE (Utah).
Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRepublicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' Senators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention MORE (S.C.), who is up in 2014, is also a potential Tea Party target.
Nelson said that bipartisan negotiations that are limited in scope to the tax hikes could prove to be very helpful, similar to the Gang of 14 that in 2005 negotiated a compromise on President Bush's judicial nominees.
"We [need to] have the willingness to come together to sit in several negotiating sessions without staff and talk through these things together," he said. "That willingness, I think, could be harder from the standpoint right now from both sides."