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Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio,

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Fiscal cliff negotiations tear at House GOP

  • Article by: KAREN TUMULTY
  • Washington Post
  • December 23, 2012 - 9:54 AM

WASHINGTON

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 Boehner to lead in the House.

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

The 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 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 GOP.

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.

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 GOP 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 Pollack, a University of Delaware 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."

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