WASHINGTON — Rep. Tom Cole says he was just responding to a question from a colleague about the political calculations for Republicans in the ongoing budget negotiations.
But Cole's response — that Republicans should accept a deal to retain tax cuts for the middle class and fight over the tax rates for the upper brackets later — generated a media frenzy here and an unequivocal rejection from the top Republican in the House.
“They asked for my opinion and I gave it,” said Cole, R-Moore.
That opinion, given privately Tuesday to a subgroup of House Republican leaders known as “whips,” was leaked to some national reporters, and Cole's position was characterized as a break from the GOP position to hold the line on tax increases for all brackets as the parties negotiate on taxes and spending cuts.
Cole said in an interview that he wasn't advocating higher taxes on the wealthy, as are President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.
He was, he said, pushing for the immediate and permanent extension of tax cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers to ease concerns before the end-of-the-year deadline. If Congress takes no action before Jan. 1, tax rates for everyone will rise.
“We should take the 98 percent of taxpayers out of harm's way,” Cole said. “We should remove their risk.
“I don't see the need in making them think their tax rates might go up. … It's just not right to use the American people as leverage in the debate.”
Preserving the tax cuts now for the large majority of taxpayers, Cole said, doesn't mean Republicans couldn't continue to fight for retaining the tax cuts for those families making $250,000 or more per year.
“Let's get the women and children off the battlefield and let's keep the fight up,” he said.
Cole made his argument Wednesday to a closed-session of House Republicans, some of whom later labeled it a nonstarter.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters after the meeting, “I told Tom earlier in our conference meeting that I disagreed with him.
“He's a wonderful friend of mine and a great supporter of mine. But raising taxes on the so-called top 2 percent — half of those people are small business owners that pay their taxes through their personal income tax filing every year. The goal here is to grow the economy and to cut spending.”
Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, said Cole's strategy met some resistance from House Republicans “who are very focused at this point on not raising anybody's taxes” while reforming entitlement programs and cutting spending.
Lucas said Cole was addressing the question of whether Republicans would ultimately prevail in a fight over tax rates for the wealthiest Americans.
“Tom was offering up a strategy to be considered and apparently not everyone agreed with him,” Lucas said. “From my perspective, if something doesn't happen, we all go off the cliff together.”
Lucas said “hard-core liberals” in Congress and at the White House have nothing to lose if Congress doesn't address the so-called fiscal cliff because they would get more revenue from the expiration of all tax cuts and large spending reductions at the Department of Defense.
“You've got to say the leverage is on their side,” Lucas said.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, agreed.
“The frustration is we're trying to bargain with people who get what they want by doing nothing,” Lankford said, adding that Democrats had yet to make any serious proposals about reducing spending and reforming entitlement programs.
At the White House, Obama urged Americans to put pressure on Congress to retain the middle-class tax cuts.
“Right now, as we speak, Congress can pass a law that would prevent a tax hike on the first $250,000 of everybody's income — everybody's,” the president said.
“And that means that 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses wouldn't see their income taxes go up by a single dime. ... Even the wealthiest Americans would still get a tax cut on the first $250,000 of their income.”