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Tax fight sends GOP into chaos

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The main thing that has held Republicans together philosophically is the belief in holding down taxes. Not one of them in Congress has voted for a significant increase in more than two decades.

Now that very issue is tearing the GOP apart and making it an all-but-ungovernable majority for Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to lead in the House.

Disarray is a word much overused in politics. But it barely begins to describe the current state of chaos and incoherence as Republicans come to terms with electoral defeat and try to regroup against a year-end deadline to avert a fiscal crisis.

The presidential election was fought in large measure over the question of whether some Americans should pay more in taxes. Republicans lost that argument with the voters, who polls show are strongly in favor of raising rates for the wealthy.

But a sizable contingent within the GOP doesn’t see it that way and is unwilling to declare defeat on a tenet that so defines them. Nor are they prepared to settle for getting the best deal they can, as a means of avoiding the tax hikes on virtually everyone else that would take effect if no deal is reached.

When Boehner tried to bend even a little, by proposing to raise rates on income over $1 million, his party humiliated him, forcing him Thursday night to abruptly cancel a vote on his “Plan B.”

“We had a number of our members who just really didn’t want to be perceived as having raised taxes,” Boehner said Friday. “That was the real issue.”

Whether and how the party can resolve the issue has implications going forward. It could determine Boehner’s viability — even his survival— as leader of the only part of the federal government controlled by the Republicans.

It also could set the terms of engagement for the battles that lie ahead, including such contentious ones as immigration and the fiscal 2013 spending bills, which are funded for only half the year and which expire March 31.

As things stand now, some worry that nothing short of a catastrophe could force a resolution.

“We have sunk to the lowest common denominator in order to get a deal — sheer panic,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, a former aide to House and Senate leadership. “The reality of a stock market crash is probably the only way Washington will strike a deal. It is probably the only scenario that could likely force the speaker’s hand and allow for a deal driven by Democratic votes to pass the House.”

Which, of course, is not an ideal way to govern.

“The hard-core anti-tax conservatives in the GOP seem to believe that Barack Obama will be blamed if there is no agreement reached to avoid sequestration and the tax increases that are coming,” said Sheldon D. Pollack, a University of Delaware law and political science professor who has written a history of Republican anti-tax policy. “Calculated gamble? Or are they simply incapable of recognizing that they do not control the White House or the Senate, and hence do not have the ability to control the agenda? Sadly, I think it is the latter.”

Their intransigence alone is unlikely to sell the electorate on the Republican point of view on taxes.

“You have to make an argument. You have to go out there and engage. You can’t just simply assert a position,” said GOP pollster David Winston, who advises the House leadership. “Part of the dynamic for Boehner is that he’s trying to have the debate over economic policies that should have occurred during the election, and he also has to deal with this piece of legislation.”

As long as there has been a Republican Party, there has been at least a faction within it that has taken a hard-line stance on taxes, Pollack said. But it has not always had the upper hand.

Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, was also the first to put a national income tax into place, as a temporary means of funding the Civil War. Even then, House Ways and Means Chairman Thaddeus Stevens (now enjoying a return to popular consciousness as Tommy Lee Jones’s character in the movie “Lincoln”) denounced the idea of a graduated rate structure as a “strange way to punish men because they are rich.”

The 16th Amendment, which established the constitutionality of the federal income tax in 1913, was proposed by a Republican, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Nelson W. Aldrich. But it was decried by another one, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, as “confiscation of property under the guise of taxation” and “a pillage of a class.”

The divisions went on until the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, who ran as an advocate of tax-cutting supply-side economics.

In 1990, Newt Gingrich established himself as the de facto head of his party in the House, when he stood up to a president of his own party and led the opposition to George H.W. Bush’s tax increases.

Gingrich insisted in an interview Friday that the Republicans still have leverage, if they are willing to fight hard enough.

“They need a strategy, not just a way of getting through this week,” he said.

© The Washington Post Company