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As Republicans traverse the fiscal cliff, a contentious vote they took four years ago and a midterm election still two years away are casting long shadows.
Most in Washington are focused on bilateral negotiations between President Barack Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner to avert across the board tax hikes on Jan. 1. But rank-and-file Republicans, particularly in the House, have an eye on their constituents and 2014, aware that supporting unpopular legislation — even in the national interest — could haunt them for years, much as the 2008 passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program still fuels conservative anger at the GOP.
“It’s a long time until the next election, but if they take a bad vote, it will stay with them forever. See: TARP,” said a GOP strategist with relationships in the House.
Republican members interviewed for this story did not raise the specter of TARP unprompted. But when asked, they did not dismiss the analogy and conceded that the situations are quite similar. Just weeks before the 2008 election, President George W. Bush asked Congress to support a federal bailout of Wall Street, warning reluctant Republicans that the legislation was necessary to prevent the U.S. economy from spiraling into complete collapse.
This time around, a Democratic president is asking Republicans to support raising tax rates on the top 2 percent of income earners, with the implicit threat that if they don’t, the country will blame the GOP for an across-the-board tax increase that could plunge the country into another recession. Recent public opinion polls have suggested that at least a plurality of GOP voters support such tax hikes, while a majority of independents also approve.
But Republican members are disinclined to test their relationship with primary voters by underwriting a policy they oppose strongly on philosophical grounds. One knowledgeable GOP operative said House Republicans “fear the voter, the average primary voter,” and many members contend that their constituents have urged them to “go over the cliff” rather than support a bad deal.
“You’re talking about somebody who voted against TARP, I think that was oversold as well,” House Chief Deputy Majority Whip Peter Roskam, R-Ill., said, when asked to compare the run-up to the Troubled Asset Relief Program vote and the debate over the fiscal cliff. “There are echoes of that [here], that’s for sure.”
“This is going to be a big, difficult vote no matter how you slice it,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, added. “People will not forget who raised their taxes.”
Obama and Boehner have yet to agree on a framework for a deal, leaving House and Senate Republicans to speculate on what hypothetical outcome they might support.