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Politics / Congress

Departing Republicans Stay True to Themselves on Fiscal Cliff

They are no longer under pressure from voters, but that's not changing how many GOP lawmakers approach the cliff.

Departing GOP lawmakers: Reps. Mary Bono Mack of California, Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, Dan Burton of Indiana.(AP Photo)

photo of Rebecca Kaplan
December 13, 2012

Departing House Republicans won’t be facing voters again, but many of them so far appear to be staying true to their districts and ideological inclinations as fiscal-cliff D-Day approaches.

Members who are from swing districts or who are retiring on their own terms say they could swallow tax increases if they are necessary to get a deal. But several conservative lawmakers told National Journal they see no reason to back down now, especially when the next Congress will have fewer people to fight for their principles.

"You don’t grow the economy by increasing taxes on anybody, and it disappoints me that there are Republicans who are willing to go down that road,” said Republican Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, who lost to Democrat Tammy Duckworth after his district was redrawn by the state Legislature.

 

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., is retiring. “I could do about anything I want because it’s not going to affect my reelection,” he said. “But I’m one of those people that’s pretty conservative, and my views of that don’t change because of elections.”

Many of the members who won’t be back say it’s time to step up and cut a deal after months of inaction. Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack, a seven-term moderate, lost last month in a Palm Springs, Calif., district that has become less reliably Republican in recent years. She said she is open to raising taxes if necessary.

“I’m not pushing for that by any means, but I think there are just realities to this that I’m willing to accept,” Bono Mack said. “It has nothing to do with the election,” she added. “The pressure is the cliff itself. There’s been certainly no change because of the election. I’ve always voted how I felt was best.”

Unlike the fight over the debt ceiling increase in the summer of 2011, the fiscal cliff has more immediate and tangible effects for Americans. Polling from Gallup conducted in December shows that an increasing percentage of the country’s adults—up to 70 percent this week—would like to see a compromise forged by the government’s leaders.

“People are very concerned about the financial stability of this country.... I think they’re paying closer attention and I think they’re fearful of this uncertainty and they just want the Congress to get something done for a change,” said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., who will step down from her seat in February to head the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Emerson, another moderate, has said everything should be on the table as leaders negotiate a deal.

Some departing Republicans have found themselves in the crosshairs of President Obama’s drive to gin up grassroots pressure on lawmakers to support higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Rep. Steven LaTourette, a retiring Republican from Ohio, described calls flooding into his office from education and labor groups, federal workers, and members of Obama’s sprawling network. “That’s political pressure,” he said.

Inside the House chamber, however, several members across the ideological spectrum told National Journal that GOP leaders have been noticeably quieter and less focused on whipping votes during this battle than previous ones. Perhaps, Bono Mack suggested, it’s a deliberate tactic to let the pressure from the public do their work for them.

“It seems to me as if both [House Speaker John Boehner] and the president have recognized that they’re going to let some of this pressure build naturally on members, that they don’t need to do as much arm twisting,” she said. “Members are going to have to come to their own conclusions with or without the leadership.”

LaTourette, a Boehner ally, disagreed with that assessment and said GOP leaders have provided all of the information they can at the moment. He’s been trying to talk to his fellow members about the need to reach a deal, and says there’s more acceptance among the rank-and-file that the fiscal cliff vote might be unpleasant. He just wants to see something get done. “I very much want to be as productive as I can,” he said. “That would be a great way to end my career.”

Rep. Steve Austria, R-Ohio, also wants to see Congress act, preferably on a plan that includes significant spending cuts to secure the nation’s financial future. “We’ve seen this fiscal cliff coming for many months now and the fact that it was put off until after the election. I think now is the time to put the politics aside and begin working on behalf of the American people,” he said, without disclosing whether he could accept a package that raises taxes.

The more conservative members said they would prefer a smaller deal to a sweeping one. Walsh, for instance, said he was “leery” of crafting a comprehensive agreement with Obama, especially during a lame-duck session. He’ll continue to oppose tax-rate increases and said he is concerned about the direction of the GOP.

“I’m just so disappointed in the messaging of our party since the election, really with this whole fiscal cliff,” he said. “It’s like we’ve been afraid to take the correct message to the American people and because of that we’re going to get something that’s probably going to entail tax increases.”

Walsh, a freshman elected in the tea party tide of 2010, suspects Boehner may forsake the most conservative members of his caucus for the sake of cutting a deal. He said he feels he and likeminded members are “less relevant now than we were during the debt-ceiling fight,” when they managed to leverage a routine vote to raise the country’s debt ceiling to force major spending cuts.

Even if he had won, though, Walsh said his influence might have been reduced. He cited Boehner’s decision to remove three conservative members from their leadership posts. “I have no doubt that if I had won and I remained as outspoken as I was, my God, who knows what they would have done to me when it came to committee assignments,” he said.

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