House Speaker John A. Boehner and other Republican leaders worry about… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — Even as he prepares to run for the Senate in Arizona next year, Rep. Jeff Flake is taking an unusual position, especially for a Republican in an election year: He opposes an effort in Congress to save his constituents $1,000 or more in Social Security payroll taxes.
Flake argues that voters will be on his side when he makes his case that the country cannot afford to keep such a tax break for 160 million Americans.
"What the public understands is the Congress has been unwilling to make any tough decisions — we've had our cake and eaten it too for so long. That's what I think angers the public," Flake said. "This is just another example of not being able to say 'no.' "
As the holiday recess approaches and the tax break nears expiration, Flake's line of thinking has been embraced by many rank-and-file Republicans in Congress, even those who have voted to extend income tax cuts to top earners. It has upended political convention and created a strategic opening for Democrats.
In defiance of their leaders, Republican conservatives have dug in, knowing full well that they risk being blamed by Democrats for allowing taxes to go up on Jan. 1.
Their resistance has pushed House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) further to the political right as he scrambles to put together a legislative package to attract their votes. GOP leaders argue that Republicans, who have fought for years to lower taxes for upper-income Americans, will pay a heavy political price if they are perceived as raising taxes on working families.
Both of the party's leading presidential hopefuls, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, support the tax break, although Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has joined other tea party Republicans in opposing it.
On Thursday, Boehner unveiled a proposal stuffed with GOP priorities that Obama has vowed to veto if it passes. Boehner's efforts appeared to be winning converts. "They certainly seem to be dragging me kicking and screaming to the 'yes' line," said Rep. Jeffrey Landry (R-La.), who remains undecided.
Flake and others, however, remain unconvinced. The reluctant Republicans argue they can make a compelling case to their constituents that the benefits of the payroll tax cut are overstated and not worth the long-term damage to the budget. They also believe voters will not punish them for holding firm to principles, even if that means allowing taxes on average workers to rise while blocking Obama's proposed tax increase on people who earn $1 million or more a year.
"Nobody believes for a second that the Democrats are somehow the low-tax party and Republicans are for taxes — that's ridiculous," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the GOP campaign committee, who has voted four times during the last week against proposals to keep the tax holiday. "We get paid to vote, and vote for what we think is good policy."
Typically it's the GOP that operates from a singular playbook, particularly on tax policy: Republicans want lower taxes, while Democrats tend to hold a variety of positions when it comes to taxes and economic issues. But the payroll tax debate has left congressional Republicans arguing among themselves.
The GOP disagreements are multiple: They don't think that the break, which lowered the payroll tax from 6.2% to 4.2%, would help job growth next year. They also say it would harm the retirement system, despite claims by the chief actuary, who said it would have no effect. The trust fund would be replenished through spending cuts or, under the Democrats' plan, by taxing incomes greater than $1 million a year.
Then there are Republicans who just do not want to give the president a victory, calling it "Obama's tax cut."
The fact that Flake, like many of his GOP colleagues, backed the George W. Bush administration's tax cuts for high-income earners in 2001 and 2003 but opposes the payroll tax cut provides an opening for Democrats to level accusations of hypocrisy. In 2010, Flake voted against a legislative package that extended the Bush-era cuts and instituted the payroll tax holiday.
In Arizona, Democrats are angling for the opportunity to highlight a likely "no" vote by Flake on the payroll tax break.
"If the Republicans vote against the middle class, you can be sure we'll be telling our voters that," said Ann Wallack, chairwoman of Maricopa County Democrats. "I think it would be very important to working-class people to have whatever tax breaks they can get."
Obama and other Democrats have spent the last couple of weeks hammering Republicans on the issue. Democrats have stuck to a simple script, what one GOP operative calls the Robin Hood message — proposing that those making $1 million or more annually pay a surtax to help defray the costs of the tax break for workers.