The two conservative lawmakers have pushed the increases as part of their work on the bipartisan congressional “supercommittee” tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reductions by a Thanksgiving deadline. Their plan, which also addresses entitlement spending, would generate at least $300 billion in new tax revenue over the next decade by overhauling the tax code to lower rates but also eliminate deductions and loopholes.
Their work has been met with a furious backlash as fellow conservatives inside and outside Congress expressed amazement that two of their biggest allies appear now to be foes.
“We’ve not had a conversation like this within the party in two decades,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.), who on Wednesday gathered signatures from about 70 House Republican colleagues for a letter to the supercommittee leadership, calling any tax increase “irresponsible and dangerous to the health of the United States.”
Describing Hensarling as a “mentor,” McHenry added: “It’s a very tough situation.”
The conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which has fought taxes, began a campaign targeting 40 House Republicans who have expressed an openness to new taxes. The group invited constituents in Virginia and Florida to call in to telephone town hall meetings Wednesday night and purchased radio ads in five states charging that the members “don’t get it” when it comes to tax policy.
Critics say that giving any ground on taxes would violate party doctrine that has not been challenged since President George H.W. Bush broke his “read my lips” pledge as part of a 1990 budget deal.
Although it’s not clear how many Republicans are willing to raise taxes, the numbers have been growing in the House and Senate. Activists say they fear that the presence of rock-ribbed conservatives in that camp and support in the business community for a deal of some sort could be spurring widespread defections.
More Republicans moved Wednesday to push their party toward accepting new taxes — putting the issue in historic terms.
“This is about more than money,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), a member of the Senate’s GOP leadership team. “It’s about whether the president and the Congress can competently govern, about whether we can face up to the biggest problem facing our country and, working together, can we solve that problem?” He added that both parties “need to put more on the table and get a result.”
As of Wednesday, the fate of the proposal backed by GOP supercommittee members was uncertain. Democrats rejected it last week, demanding more new taxes than the Republican panel members had been willing to offer. But negotiations continued, and Hensarling told reporters late in the day that he was “willing to look at any offer” from the other party.