WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama called for
extending the payroll-tax cut for workers during a joint address to
Congress three months ago, only a few Republicans stood to applaud.
head of the House Republican campaign committee called the tax breaks a
“horrible idea.” Conservatives likened it to “robbing Peter to pay
Paul” and piling onto the national debt.
U.S. workers facing an average $1,000 tax increase on Jan. 1, GOP
leaders in Congress are engaged in a message makeover. They are
struggling to convince their rank-and-file lawmakers that blocking
Obama’s proposed tax break would be politically toxic, not to mention a
breach of the party’s decades-old commitment to cutting taxes.
prospect of a split within the party’s ranks, so soon after
Republican-led efforts to preserve tax breaks for wealthier Americans
last year, has presented an opening that Democrats are trying to.
are giving themselves whiplash on the issue of taxes: Republicans have
one position on taxes for the wealthy and another position when it comes
to everyone else,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a chief
campaign strategist for Democrats. “Republicans have had the advantage
on tax issues over Democrats, but that is changing.”
narrative has left Republican lawmakers bristling when confronted with
the story line that Democrats, not the GOP, are fighting the good fight
over tax breaks for working Americans.
certainly false,” said Rep. Frank Guinta, a Republican freshman from New
Hampshire who wants to continue the payroll-tax break if it is paid for
with budget cuts elsewhere. “Democrats have made a pretty good argument
for that, but that’s their opinion.”
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a leading House conservative, barely hid his displeasure with the theme.
“They’re gaining some ground with the less informed,” Franks said. Does this drive him nuts? “It does.”
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, sought to thwart the Democrats’ effort
to write new chapter in political tax history, using his credentials as
a low-tax leader and an everyman son of a tavern owner.
I’ve got 11 brothers and sisters on every rung of the economic ladder,
all right?” Boehner said. “The fact is that Republicans are trying to do
everything we can to allow American families and small businesses to
keep more of what they earn, to try to get this government off the backs
of employers so that they can begin to hire people.”
taxes have been a cornerstone of the GOP platform for more than 30
years, ever since Republicans in California led passage of Proposition
13 in 1978, and many party campaigns have been built on pledges to cut
That congressional class of 1978 had
pivotal members, including Dick Cheney, who as vice president would help
engineer tax breaks approved in 2001 and 2003 under President George W.
Bush. Ronald Reagan slashed top income rates in the 1980s and “the rest
is history,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of American politics
at Claremont McKenna College.
Only when Bush’s
father broke his no-taxes pledge, contributing to his defeat in the 1992
presidential election, have Republicans wavered. “In an odd way, George
H.W. Bush did more than anyone else to solidify GOP opposition to new
taxes,” Pitney said.
But the current debate over
the payroll-tax cut has divided the party despite efforts by Republican
leaders to unite their members.
Approved in late
2010 as part of a $858-billion deal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, the
payroll holiday has given workers a break of 2 percentage points off
the tax they pay into Social Security.
billed as a one-year effort to stimulate the economy by letting workers
keep a little more in their paychecks, but with the recovery still
sputtering, analysts say not extending it would stunt the nation’s
When the package passed, none of
the costs were paid for, but lost revenue to the Social Security trust
fund was to be replenished from the budget — an approach conservatives
say only adds to the nation’s debt. Now, the prospect of offsetting the
$112 billion cost with budget cuts has not been enough to win votes from
“We have two issues to
deal with: One is the deficit, and one is the economy,” said freshman
Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla. He agreed with those at a GOP meeting who
questioned the rationale for continuing the break.
others recognize the political peril of allowing the tax break to
expire at the end of December. Freshman Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler,
R-Wash., said she was willing to entertain closing corporate tax
loopholes to defray the costs.
“You don’t raise
taxes on middle-class families. This is important. It hits moms and dads
and working families,” she said. “Let’s stop subsidizing corporations
to exist. That’s not free market to me.”
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