WASHINGTON -- Fewer Republicans are saying "no" to raising taxes on the rich. But it still may be after the nation starts sliding into the fiscal abyss before enough of them are willing to say "yes" to a tax deal with Democrats, numerous lawmakers told The Huffington Post.
In fact, the negotiations are beginning to remind some in Congress of last winter's battle over extending the popular payroll tax cuts when Tea Party conservatives revolted at a GOP leadership proposal, only to come back and take the deal after a pounding in opinion polls.
Then, Republican lawmakers were for extending a tax cut that mostly helped the middle class. This time, they are balking at extending the Bush-era tax cuts for 98 percent of earners and hiking them for the top 2 percent.
Democrats, who campaigned and won on the promise of ending the Bush breaks for earners above $250,000, are insisting on their position as the way to begin dealing with the revenue side of the so-called fiscal cliff, the mix of tax hikes and spending cuts set to kick in at the start of the year.
The Democrats' position again is the popular one, and again Republicans' only leverage comes from the pain everyone will feel if all the cuts end.
Republicans know the history, but may be powerless to stop it from repeating.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) "has a tough job," said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) "He knows Obama won the election, and on the question of taxes going up on the wealthy -- that's going to happen. But he has in his conference members who ran and won on the platform of lowering taxes for the wealthy -- certainly not raising them -- so this is a big challenge for any political leader."
Indeed, many Tea Party-linked Republicans said they are digging in, linking the fiscal cliff talks to raising the nation's borrowing limit, which it is likely to reach in February.
Even though opinion polls from last year's showdown on the debt limit -- which Congress raised in the deal that created the fiscal cliff's spending cuts -- found the GOP fared poorly in the eyes of the public, conservatives said they see the need to raise borrowing authority as their one chance for leverage.
"If we get past Jan. 1, then the debt ceiling is the major issue, and I think the American people side with us on the debt ceiling," said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.). "We need to see real progress on solving our debt and our deficit issues, and we only seem to get that around here when we're talking about increasing the debt ceiling."
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who voted against his party's spending plans on grounds they didn't cut enough, recognized that Republicans are in a poor position. He argued they have only themselves to blame, and said the solution is not raising taxes on the rich, but making a better case to the public.
"Yeah, it’s put us in a bad situation, but in a way Republicans helped draw themselves into this corner," Huelskamp said, criticizing his party for only getting President Barack Obama to extend the cuts for the rich two years in 2010, and for the 2011 debt ceiling deal. "It’s a tough situation, but you don’t sell it up here. You’ve got to go back and do town halls. The reality is we’ve got to show folks we care, and many Republicans don’t do a good job of it."
Still, other Republicans showed signs of softening, and not just Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, who shook up the debate by saying the GOP should take the Democrats' deal, at least for now.
Others, who in the past had been adamantly opposed to raising any taxes, declined to tell HuffPost that they would vote against a bill that passed the Senate in the summer preserving lower rates on all but the top earners.
"We really need to wait and see what the final deal is," said Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) "I think where we end up is going to be a lot different than where we are today," he said, adding, "I've learned to wait and see."
"It all depends on what the bill looks like and we’ll wait and see when that happens,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.)
"I gotta have something on the table" before saying yes or no, said Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who allowed that the GOP might not be able to avert a scenario similar to last winter.
“I’m saying it’ll have to depend on what’s on the floor, and I don’t want to telegraph or weaken my leadership’s position here," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.). "But I think almost all of us are going to do everything that we can to prevent the damage that Democrats want to do to this economy.”
Democrats said they see hope in the sheer number of Republicans easing away from firm "noes" on letting taxes go back up for the wealthy.
But they also remember how Republicans imploded over the payroll tax cut. Democrats said one answer for the GOP was to stay in a standoff until the new year, after which there would be no more debate about raising rates, since they'll be higher by default. Then, the only question would be whether to cut most taxes -- a much easier choice.
"It may be, politically," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). "I think it's unfortunate we can't see leadership. If all [tax rates] have to go up and families don't know what's happening, we're jeopardizing middle-class families, holding them hostage to the politics of the moment, which I think is really outrageous," she said, adding, "but there are those that would argue that's what's going to have to happen."
Welch said he believed Boehner was working hard to find a solution, but said he could see the same scenario unfolding, especially since the election gives Democrats much less reason to give up their key principles.
"I'm skeptical that they'll be able to reach an agreement before the first of January," Welch said, pointing out that first Boehner would have to convince members who "all ran against doing that" to raise taxes.
"No. 2, the only way he's going to be able to successfully make that argument is if he can go in with significant Medicare cuts that the president will reject," Welch said. "And then three, the president wants some debt-ceiling resolution even if on a temporary basis, and he'll never give that up."
GOP talk of using the debt ceiling for leverage only firms the White House stance, Welch said.
Add up all the deep divides, and it doesn't get any easier until the nation slips just past the precipice of the cliff and the ground changes because of that.
"The path of least resistance is for a tax bill to come on the floor in the first week of January, and we lower taxes instead of raise them," Welch said.