The growing number of GOP defectors on taxes is causing heartburn in Republican ranks and prompting fresh fears that the party is giving President Barack Obama crucial leverage in the fiscal cliff negotiations.
"I think it's not helpful on anything to negotiate in public," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), echoing the concerns of many in the party eager to tamp down internal dissension ahead of a high-stakes year-end deadline.
Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican who has supported revenue increases in the past, said he's intentionally keeping those thoughts to himself these days.
"Most of us are, as I am, holding back and saying, 'Let's wait and see what happens with the speaker and the president,'" Crapo said Tuesday. "That's the best approach right now."
Since the election, House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans have gone to lengths to demonstrate they're willing to raise new revenue by closing loopholes or capping tax deductions. For now, that's as far out on a limb as anyone in the party should step, some prominent GOP lawmakers argue.
"It's now time to hear something from Democrats," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has long signaled willingness to raise tax revenues in a deficit deal. "I haven't heard one prominent Democrat come out with anything that they're willing to do, to make a statement about what we should do on entitlements. I think we should let them speak for a while."
The concerns come as the rabid anti-tax stance that has bonded Republicans for a generation is unraveling, giving way to messy factions of lawmakers who have very different prescriptions for averting the fast-approaching fiscal cliff.
On one side are Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and others who say it's time to concede higher taxes on the top 2 percent of wage earners in order to secure deep spending cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare, a top prize for the GOP. On Tuesday, Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine moderate, joined Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole's call for Congress to quickly pass an extension of tax cuts for those who earn less than $250,000, in line with the White House's position.
Privately, some top Republicans believe such comments are actually helpful -- giving Boehner cover as he tries to reach a deal that includes new taxes without setting off a revolt among the rank and file.
The Republicans conceding ground on the tax issue aren't making any apologies.
"I wasn't out there on my own," Corker said Tuesday. "I think there are a number in our caucus that want to move beyond the revenue discussion to an entitlement reform discussion."
Added Coburn: "The fact is taxes are going to go up. Should they? No, but they are."
Another faction in the party, including Sens. Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, will consider higher tax revenues -- but only if they come through closing loopholes and capping tax deductions and are paired with deep spending cuts.
"I just don't think Democrats are prepared to give enough on entitlements at this point," Johanns said when asked if he could accept a tax rate increase.
Then there are those like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.): conservatives who are adamantly opposed to raising any tax revenue whatsoever.
"It makes no sense," DeMint, who is retiring to take the helm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, told POLITICO. "I don't think there's any way you can reconcile that with the principles that we stand for. That will be a big, big problem."
Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona is encouraging GOP lawmakers to remember why the party is so opposed to letting the Bush-era tax rates expire on the top end.
"I would just hope they would remember that we haven't been defending the top two rates because of rich people," he said. "We've been defending the top two rates because of the effect on small businesses of raising those rates. I would just hope that everybody would discuss it in that way."
The Republican divide over taxes underscores how the party is struggling to gain an edge in the negotiations from a president who refuses to consider extending the current 35 percent tax rate for those who earn more than $250,000 annually. Despite trading proposals with the speaker this week, Obama has said the GOP must accept raising tax rates on the top 2 percent before Democrats would entertain cuts to entitlements.
That position runs counter to the GOP belief that doing so would imperil the economy. So caving on that core principle is causing a fresh round of hand-wringing in Republican circles.
"It would be very difficult for me to swallow," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) when asked about a tax rate increase. "I think we've got to accept the fact that there's going to be more revenue."
Adding to the anxiety is growing pressure the party is under from conservative thought leaders. The Wall Street Journal editorial page took Corker and other Republicans to task Monday for talking about concessions that could ultimately make it harder for the party to attain its policy goals.
"Mr. Corker has proposed several specific and laudable entitlement changes, but note how Mr. Obama has declined to support a single one of them in public," the editorial said. "After he has GOP fingerprints on tax rate increases, Mr. Obama is more likely to make Republicans trade onerous defense cuts for entitlement changes that are far less consequential than Mr. Corker has proposed."
The Journal summed up its advice: "Republicans need not play along, and they and the country will suffer if they do."
But the Business Roundtable -- long aligned with Republicans -- is pushing the GOP in the opposite direction. The group sent a letter to congressional leaders Tuesday, signed by 159 CEOs Tuesday, urging them to make big compromises -- even if that includes a rate increase.
And some Republicans seem on board with the approach.
"I do think that Rep. Tom Cole's idea of taking off the table the 98 percent of Americans that everybody agrees on both sides should have continued tax relief also makes a great deal of sense," Collins said Tuesday.
Top House Republicans are trying to block out the noise.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), a close Boehner ally, issued an angry statement in response to the Business Roundtable's letter.
"Big business may support raising tax rates on small businesses but I do not," he said.
Added the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Orrin Hatch of Utah: "We do not believe the way we're going to solve this problem is to raise rates without full structural entitlement reform. And even then, we don't want to raise rates because we know once you raise them, they never come down."
With taxes bound to go up without a deal and as the GOP is facing a Democratic president and Senate, Republicans say such angst within the ranks is to be expected.
"We got different people who are articulating positions with regard to the whole fiscal cliff issue," said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, No. 3 in Republican Senate leadership. "In the end, I suspect, we all will be united behind a strategy when that time comes."
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.