With the Senate voting overwhelmingly on Monday to proceed on the proposed tax deal, all eyes are on the House, where many Democrats (and not a few Republicans) have already expressed their displeasure with the deal. Indeed, the uproar from House Democrats — epitomized by the errant f-bomb launched at President Obama — has in many ways overshadowed the growing conservative opposition to the package.
While it is safe to say that most House Republicans share the position of Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), who told National Review Online that the deal was “the best we were going to get,” an increasing number of Republicans have voiced misgivings, including key conservative figures like Reps. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Darrell Issa (Calif.), and Mike Pence (Ind.), among others.
Their concerns include the temporary — rather than permanent — nature of the extension, the reinstatement of the estate tax (which some would like to see eliminated entirely), and the inclusion of renewable-energy subsidies and other earmarks. Above all, fiscal hawks are wary of the estimated $858 billion the tax package would add to the deficit. Some Tea Party groups, feeling betrayed, have stepped up the pressure on Republicans to oppose the deal. One such group, Tea Party Patriots, said the current package was “against everything the House Republican Leadership agreed to in the ‘Pledge to America,’” and is circulating a petition urging lawmakers to vote no on the “Obama Tax Compromise.”
So where exactly do the 60-plus GOP members-in-waiting stand on the issue? After all, if this deal fails, it will be up to them to craft a new one. It’s hard to say, really. Many did not respond to requests for comment, and some are clearly enjoying their brief vacation from politics. A number of press secretaries, when asked about their bosses’ positions on the tax deal, seemed caught off guard. “That’s a great question,” one responded. Broadly speaking, new members are as ambivalent as some of their future colleagues in the House — they’re not crazy about the deal, but they don’t want taxes to go up at the end of the year, either. And while they tend to make many of the same points, they aren’t exactly speaking in one voice.
Congressman-elect Tim Scott (S.C.), one of four freshmen selected for the House Republican transition team, and one of two chosen for a leadership role in the next Congress, was not impressed. In an appearance on Sean Hannity’s program last week, Scott slammed the deal and argued for a permanent extension of all the tax rates. He chided House Democrats for adding pork to the bill. “There’s a reason why the American people voted the Republicans into leadership and voted the Democrats out,” he said. Incoming Rep. Renee Ellmers (N.C.), appearing alongside Scott, said she didn’t like the deal, either. “The devils are in the details,” she said, echoing Scott’s call for a permanent extension. “We can’t work in a temporary economy,” she said. “This is the problem.”
Congressman-elect David Schweikert (Ariz.) voiced similar concerns. He said he absolutely didn’t want taxes to go up at the end of the year, but worried about the number of attachments to the deal and the fact that none of the provisions are paid for. “It’s the same type of log-rolling politics that I despise,” he said. “I would have to be convinced to vote yes.” Congressman-elect. Steve Womack (Ark.), who was recently awarded a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, went one step further, saying he agreed with Mitt Romney’s assessment that it would be best to let the new Congress craft another deal. “If [scrapping the deal and taking it up in 2011] is the only way to do it in a way that is fiscally responsible, then I’m for it,” Womack said.
Congressman-elect Kristi Noem (S.D.), who will serve with Scott as a freshman liaison to the House GOP leadership next year, struck a much milder tone delivering the weekly Republican address on Saturday. She called the deal “encouraging” and “a good first step” toward restoring economic certainty, and issued an apparent warning to both parties. “The American people . . . won’t tolerate games that might get in the way,” Noem said. “They won’t put up with any celebrating and back-slapping, either.”
Others also preferred this softer stance. Congressman-elect Steven Palazzo (Miss.), who defeated eleven-term Blue Dog Rep. Gene Taylor in the midterms, would like to see the deal passed quickly, if only to restore certainty to the economy and to provide the 112th Congress with a framework in which to further reduce tax rates and to offset the spending built into the package. “We have to provide certainty in the marketplace, and if this is the deal that leadership has been able to make, I feel that [Palazzo] would be inclined to vote that way,” his spokesman Hunter Lipscomb said.
Incoming representative Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), who was recently tapped for a seat on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he’s in Paul Ryan’s camp: He’d probably vote for the deal, with some caveats. “I’m leaning toward saying, ‘Let’s pass it,’ because we cannot let these tax cuts expire,” he said. “There’s also part of me that says, ‘Look, if they start loading any more pork onto this thing, I’m fine with it dying right now and we can take it up [next year].’” He doesn’t buy the argument that the deal was a terrible compromise for conservatives, recalling President Obama’s assertion last summer that opposing “tax cuts for the rich” would be a winning issue for the Democrats in November. “Not only did it not turn the election, it turned in our favor and they were forced to admit that we have to give at least a temporary extension of all the tax rates, so that seems like a victory for us,” he said.
Overall, incoming members seemed largely in agreement on the policy. None would argue that a permanent extension wasn’t preferable or that the package shouldn’t be paid for. (Kinzinger, however, said he differed with most of his colleagues in his support for extending unemployment benefits “one last time” as long as they were paid for). But when it came to the political question — how they would vote on the current package — they had a hard time answering definitively, often invoking the classic brush-off: “Well, I’m not fully informed on the matter.”
It’s not as if the current GOP caucus has its mind made up, either. Many members are waiting to see the final package before making their positions known. And despite the high-profile opposition to the deal, plenty of big names are backing it. In addition to conservative stalwarts such as Ryan, groups such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Tax Reform have urged lawmakers to pass the deal. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton and Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty — both potential candidates in 2012 — have said they would vote yes on the current package. The public seems to like it as well. A recent Washington Post–ABC News poll found that 69 percent of Americans support the deal, including 75 percent of Republicans. Even when concerns over the deficit were considered, 62 percent of Americans want to see it passed.
The Senate made its intentions known on Monday, but the House picture is far less clear. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) said on Fox News Sunday that House Democrats would not block the deal. House majority leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) told reporters that while the caucus remains “pretty cold” on the deal, it is still likely to pass. But if Democrats attempt to include certain amendments and changes to the estate-tax provision, they could scuttle support among Republicans and possibly sink the deal, in which case incoming GOP members will need to figure out exactly where they stand, and fast.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2010 Franklin Fellow.