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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.
But the president has held firm on his demand to raise taxes on Americans who earn at least $200,000 annually and households that earn at least $250,000, and Republican congressional aides and GOP operatives with ties to the House say they expect any final agreement to include some form of an income-tax rate hike on wealthier Americans. This is a major sticking point for Republicans.
Publicly, they claim that campaign politics will not factor into their support of or opposition to any deal, claiming that Obama’s tax hike proposal would adversely affect small businesses, hampering job creation and depressing economic growth. But privately, they also are concerned about voter anger and the possibility of getting primaried in 2014.
This dynamic only metastasizes in January, should a deal fail to be reached by Dec. 31, when a slightly smaller and more conservative House Republican majority and somewhat expanded but more liberal Democratic House minority take office.
“More and more are saying go off the cliff,” a senior Republican House aide said. “I think they’re saying that because they’re worried about primary challenges.”
Regardless of what motivates individual Republicans, Idaho Rep. Raúl R. Labrador said that the majority of his GOP colleagues are united around the concept that “a bad deal is worse than no deal.” Rushing in typical lame-duck fashion to consummate a bad deal at year’s end, Labrador added, “would actually be worse for us as Republicans, but most importantly for the American people.”
In recent election cycles, the Club for Growth has been active in recruiting and funding primary challengers to Republican incumbents it deems as insufficiently conservative on fiscal issues. The group has had some success, and while it probably could not target a lot of incumbents, fear of being among the few the club does go after can shape members’ votes.
Not surprisingly, Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, a former Indiana congressman, told CQ Roll Call that his organization won’t hesitate to take action in the next election. “I think the fiscal cliff and more importantly the debt ceiling is going to set the stage for the 2014 primaries, and we’ll see who does what,” he said.
In the Senate, where not every Republican will face the voters in 2014, there is more recognition of the weak political hand the GOP has been dealt, particularly on taxes. There also appears to be more willingness to entertain compromise with Obama, if he shows what they would characterize as significant movement on spending and entitlements.
But looking at the current roster of Senate Republicans, the “no” votes for a deal that includes the tax increases Obama demands are easier to find than the “yes” votes. In fact, the easiest “yes” votes are among the Republicans who are retiring.
Almost certain to oppose any agreement with tax hikes, regardless of what else it contains, is Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is up for re-election in 2014 and has to protect against a primary challenge in a state that elected Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite, in 2010. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who becomes GOP whip next month, is up for re-election in the state that this year elected another tea party favorite, Republican Sen.-elect Ted Cruz.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who faces the serious threat of a primary challenge and has suggested flexibility on taxes, said the fiscal cliff “weighs” on him because it’s a critical issue for the country, not because of his 2014 re-election. “We’ve got to do what’s right for the country,” he said. “The politics will take care of itself.”