DES MOINES, Iowa — Republicans in Congress who took the risky step of voting last week to raise taxes now find themselves trying to fend off potential primary challenges next year from angry conservatives.
These lawmakers wasted little time attempting to deliver an explanation that would be acceptable to the tea party and the GOP’s right flank, and, perhaps, insulate themselves from a re-election battle against a fellow Republican. They’ve started defending the vote as one that preserves tax cuts for most Americans, while promising to fight for spending cuts in upcoming legislative debates over raising the nation’s borrowing limit.
“In the end, he ensured that over 99 percent of Kentuckians will not pay higher income taxes,” Mitch McConnell’s campaign wrote in an email message to Kentucky voters the day after the Senate Republican leader supported the measure.
It was the first time in two decades a significant number of Republicans voted for a tax increase; 33 Senate Republicans did so and 85 House members who broke with their GOP majority to support the bill that avoided the nation going over the so-called fiscal cliff but that also raises taxes on upper incomes.
“The ones that voted for it, I think they will rue the day,” Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby proclaimed after opposing the bill. And Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, put it this way: “It’s not too early to be looking at 2014. I think there are going to be a lot of primary challenges. People are fed up.”
Most, if not all, of these Republicans who voted to raise taxes are likely mindful of their party’s recent history of nasty primary battles that have pitted incumbents against tea party-backed insurgents. And none of them is likely to be immune to the scrutiny expected to confront them when they return to their districts to stand for re-election in November 2014.
The vote was a dilemma for Republicans, who have pledged for decades not to raise taxes, but faced being blamed with raising taxes on all Americans, had Congress and the White House not reached a deal on legislative to avert the scheduled increases on most Americans. The party got some cover from Grover Norquist, a leading anti-tax figure who described the bill, which preserved a series of tax cuts for most incomes, as “clearly a tax cut.”
Even so, the tea party wasn’t on board. Neither were many of the party’s most conservative lawmakers in Washington.
“It’s a really tough vote. And it’s a really tough vote to explain to Republicans,” Michigan Republican consultant Stu Sandler said.
Lawmakers who could be vulnerable to a challenge include Michigan Rep. Dan Benishek and South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem, who bucked her tea party base and backed the bill.
“This makes her vulnerable and there will be discussion that she should have a primary challenge,” former South Dakota Republican chairman Joel Rosenthal said.
Some Democrats who opposed the deal also might be called to account for spurning President Barack Obama and refusing to go along with his election-year pledge to raise taxes on America’s top earners.