By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - What if they yield, even a little?
Call it GOP Primary Fear. A major hurdle to breaking the federal debt-ceiling impasse is the worry by House Republicans that they will invite primary election challenges from the right if they give ground to Democrats on the issue of higher tax revenues.
There's even a verb for it: being "primaried."
The challenger would not be a Democrat. It would be a fellow Republican, in a spring or summer primary that most voters would ignore. That could leave the field mainly to ideological die-hards, often with tea party ties and little appetite for compromise.
It's the atmosphere that many House freshmen rode to victory last year, and that cost two GOP senators their party's nomination.
"They talk about it all the time," said Mike McKenna, a Republican lobbyist who closely follows the House and politics. If the House cuts a deficit-reduction deal with President Barack Obama, he said, "you're probably going to see a lot of leadership guys get primaried," along with rank-and-file Republicans. "It could be an all-time high."
Such worries are a key reason the GOP-controlled House has refused so far to accept Obama's debt-and-deficit overture, even though it includes concessions that many people never expected from a Democrat. It would cut spending by $3 trillion over 10 years, and slowly start to trim Social Security and Medicare benefits.
“If we pass some deal that includes tax increases ... a number of our folks, especially freshmen, will face primaries.”Wes Anderson, GOP pollster
But to get a package through the Democratic-controlled Senate, the deal also must include some version of revenue hikes, aimed mainly at the wealthy and generating up to $1 trillion over a decade.
That's the needle House Speaker John Boehner is trying to thread. He must persuade enough fellow Republicans to give just enough on higher revenues, or "tax hikes" -- there will be a fierce fight, too, over definitions -- to keep Senate Democrats from filibustering the bill to death.
He also must reassure colleagues that they could survive primary challenges.
Obama confronted the issue Friday, at a forum in Maryland. Many House districts, he said, are drawn to be "so solidly Republican or so solidly Democrat that a lot of Republicans in the House of Representatives, they're not worried about losing to a Democrat. They're worried about somebody on the right running against them because they compromised.
"So even if their instinct is to compromise, their instinct of self-preservation is stronger. And they say to themselves, 'I don't want a primary challenge.' So that leads them to dig in."
Nearly all of Congress' Republicans have pledged not to raise taxes, although lawmakers quibble about what that means. Many tea partyers say it bars any action that would lead directly to a net increase in tax revenues. The Senate is almost certain to reject that definition.
Tea party activist Lee Bellinger recently urged colleagues to put lawmakers on notice "before the disease of Republican compromise infects Washington once again."
As early as mid-April, Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler told The Hill newspaper he was "getting emails by the hour from people talking about primary challenges" to Republicans who seek budget deals with Democrats.
Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker said Republican primaries are dominated by "the most ideological voters." These party members, he said, "track votes and are unforgiving."
GOP pollster and consultant Wes Anderson said, "If we pass some deal that includes some form of tax increases -- even if we try really hard to couch it in 'tax reform, closing loopholes,' etc. -- there are going to be a number of our folks, especially freshmen, who will face primaries. It's just going to happen."
Anderson said Boehner's top staffer is counting votes every day, asking "what kind of deal can we get without losing too many?"
For Boehner, it's not a question of reaching the minimum 218 votes needed to pass a bill in the House (or 217, given the two current vacant seats).
If Obama endorses a compromise, it probably will draw scores of House Democrats' votes. That would allow Boehner to lose 100 or so of his 240 Republicans, and still pass the measure.
But if Boehner wants to remain speaker, he can hardly afford a bigger defection than that. He needs to find the political sweet spot, a compromise that can win the votes of 140 or so House Republicans and most of the Senate's Democrats.
McKenna estimates that about 40 pro-Boehner House Republicans are politically safe enough to vote for a compromise with no worries. Beyond that, he said, "80, 90, 100 are probably going to vote 'yes' on whatever comes out. And they will be exposed."
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)