article

12.15.10

Tea Party Could Sink the Tax-Cut Deal in the House

After an initial outcry, House Democrats appear resigned to passing President Obama’s compromise plan to extend the Bush tax cuts—but now Tea Party groups are threatening to upend the vote instead.

Just days ago, the White House was scrambling to rally support among Democrats as a deal with Republican leaders on extending the Bush tax cuts hung precariously in the balance. But Rep. Steve King (R-IA) says the Obama team may have been looking at the wrong side of the aisle.

The Tea Party firebrand is as anti-tax as they come, to the point that some have accused him of flirting with radicalism. At the annual conservative gathering CPAC this year, he caused an uproar when he reportedly told audience members to “implode” IRS offices; that same week, an anti-government extremist flew a plane into an IRS building in Texas, taking the life of a federal worker along with his own. Now King is coming out against a White House proposal that would cut hundreds of billions of dollars of taxes over the next two years, arguing that the Republicans shouldn’t negotiate while their incoming majority still sits on the sidelines. The proposal just passed the Senate by a huge margin, 81-19.

“The voice of the American people was heard Nov. 2 and we’re going to do something with taxes and entitlements just a few days before they’re sworn in,” he said. “I think they ought to have something to say about it and I would like to see them be able to pass their first vote as making these tax brackets permanent.”

King told The Daily Beast that criticism of the tax deal from Tea Party groups and key conservative lawmakers in the Senate, namely Jim DeMint (R-SC)—who voted against the bill Wednesday—was lending momentum to Republican opposition to the plan.

“I’m seeing a trend, I think, in our conference that lines up more and more [‘no’ votes] than we had a few days ago,” he said. “DeMint has helped with this because as much as his voice speaks in synchronization with the Tea Party, I think that gives some people some confidence.”

Michele Bachmann (R-MN), the chairwoman of the House Tea Party Caucus, has also come out against the compromise, as have the leaders of the grassroots Tea Party Patriots. There is some influential opposition to the deal among more mainstream conservatives as well, most notably from columnist Charles Krauthammer, who warned that the tax proposal would give President Obama an advantage in the 2012 election by temporarily stimulating the economy.

The anti-compromise bloc has provoked a pushback from a number of key conservative groups supportive of the deal, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and small-government group Americans for Tax Reform and its leader, Grover Norquist. Rep. Jack Kingson (R-GA) told reporters Wednesday that even though he had concerns about the compromise himself, he believed that its proponents had managed to stop the bleeding among conservative lawmakers.

“I’m seeing a trend, I think, in our conference that lines up more and more [‘no’ votes] than we had a few days ago,” said Rep. Steve King.

“Traditional conservative groups have now circled the wagons around the agreement and said, ‘We need to get this done, this will help economic growth,’” he said.

The best thing the tax deal might have going for it on the right, Kingson added, is a case of conservative attention deficit disorder. Outrage on the right is rapidly shifting toward the debate over a $1.1 trillion omnibus bill containing millions of dollars of earmark requests from Republican lawmakers. Kingson suggested that opposing the omnibus could provide political cover with the base for Republicans who side with leadership on the tax deal.

“I’m thinking that [the tax deal is] settling in and a lot of the political energy is being moved over to the omni,” Kingson said.

The irony of the Republicans’ increasing uneasiness with the tax compromise is that Democratic House members say that they’re moving closer to ensuring its passage after an open revolt against the Obama White House over the deal. A number of progressives opposed to the deal predicted it will clear a vote even as Democratic leaders have yet to whip votes in either direction.

“What are the odds of it passing as is? Unfortunately, without any changes, probably stronger than it was as a result of the Senate vote,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Progressive Caucus and an opponent of the compromise, said in an interview, referring to the bill’s overwhelming passage in the upper chamber. “Many of the people in opposition to it are beginning to say, ‘I have to do this so I don’t get the wrath from the middle-class tax cuts and the unemployed benefits expiring.’”

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) also noted that despite talk of adding amendments raising the estate tax and perhaps extending unemployment insurance, the Senate and White House were well-positioned to demand little or no changes.

“I think [the amendments] all make a lot of good sense, but if we can’t get the Senate to agree, all we’ll be doing is sending a bill to the Senate and then having the same bill come back to us,” he said.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), who is close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, predicted that the House would ultimately pass legislation that satisfied the Senate.

“We’re trying to sort things out,” she told The Daily Beast. “I think there’s a lot of recognition in the caucus that we need to protect the middle-class tax cuts, and that’s of paramount importance.”

While Democratic leaders may not have come out with a clear position yet to sell to their members, the White House is making a strong case for rapidly passing the compromise—reportedly in almost apocalyptic terms. Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-OR) told CNN that the president had warned it would be “ the end of his presidency” if the tax deal fell through.

Benjamin Sarlin is the Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast and edits the site's politics blog, Beltway Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.