Imagine, if you will, that you are a returning Republican member of the House of Representatives. You want to do what you believe is right for the country; you also want to avoid a vote that will keep you from the opportunity to win reelection two years from now. And you will soon have to make a decision on the issue that has dominated Washington since Election Day: How to avert the looming combination of spending cuts and tax hikes that has come to be known as the "fiscal cliff."
It won't be easy. The clearest sticking point between Republicans and Democrats comes on taxes: Democrats largely want to allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire on income above $250,000 - effectively raising taxes on the highest earners - and Republicans don't. Many Republicans, in fact, have signed Grover Norquist's pledge promising never to vote for tax increases of any kind. According to "the pledge," they could only vote to close loopholes and deductions in the tax code if they are coupled with reductions in overall income tax rates. Anything that would increase "revenues," in the terminology of Washington - that is, the amount of money the government takes in from taxes - is off the table.
There has been some pushback to Norquist's pledge in recent days from Republicans who say they will not be held hostage by it. They have not expressed support for raising tax rates on the highest earners - an issue that President Obama campaigned on - but they say they are willing to at least raise revenues by closing deductions and loopholes. But these voices have largely come not from the House but from the Senate. And the opinion of Senate Republicans isn't all that important, since Democrats control that chamber.
What matters more is what happens in the GOP-led House. And for many GOP lawmakers there, voting to increase revenue means increasing the risk of facing a well-funded challenger in their next primary campaign. This wouldn't simply be because they angered Norquist: While the media savvy founder of Americans for Tax Reform gets much of the attention in the tax debate, his organization has not spent much to unseat Republican candidates in recent years. Of the $15.8 million Americans for Tax Reform spent in the 2012 election cycle, just $3,500 was used to target Republicans. In the 2010 election cycle, just $300,000 of the $4 million spent by the group was used against Republicans.
But Americans for Tax Reform is not the only game in town. The Club for Growth, for example, spent $10 million against Republicans in the 2012 cycle. The group is powerful enough that when West Virginia GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito announced she was seeking a 2014 Senate seat, a statement by its president criticizing Capito for "a long record of support of bailouts, pork and bigger government" generated headlines. For a Republican lawmaker, angering the Club for Growth and other anti-tax groups could result in an influx of outside money that could sink your reelection bid. It's no wonder that when CBS News' political director John Dickerson asked a senior House leadership aide if a majority of House Republicans what the chances were that a majority of House Republicans would vote for a tax increase, the response was "pretty close to zero."
Yet House Republicans cannot simply vote against any tax hikes and be on their way. That's because if lawmakers do not take action on the "fiscal cliff," Americans will face a tax hike at the end of the year - when the Bush-era tax cuts, the payroll tax cut, and other ostensibly-temporary tax breaks expire. These Republicans are in a box: If they vote in favor of a deal that raises revenues, they could face a primary challenge. But if they vote against any deal, they'll be partially responsible for an across-the-board tax hike - and polling suggests Americans will place the blame largely on the GOP's shoulders. Meanwhile, Democrats have no intention of agreeing to a deal to avert the "cliff" that does not include an increase in revenue.