WASHINGTON — The GOP's image as a rigidly anti-tax party is softening. Spurred by federal debt worries in Congress, the shift conceivably could reshape the Republican Party's brand ahead of the 2012 elections.
Some of the party's staunchest fiscal conservatives have surprised colleagues by saying targeted tax hikes are acceptable if they lead Democrats to accept deep government spending cuts.
Whether or not Congress' deficit-reduction talks succeed, the Republicans' offer has touched off a debate unlikely to end soon. The altered stance would upend party orthodoxy, which holds that deficits should be tamed entirely by spending cuts, with no tax increases.
In recent months, increasing numbers of Republican lawmakers and strategists have grown wary of the no-exceptions position. They fear independent voters will abandon the GOP next year if it seems too rigid and beholden to tea partyers. They also worry that another deficit-reduction impasse will further erode Congress' image, and House Republicans might be handy election targets.
Some of those Republicans hope Democrats will agree to a deal that would include cuts to Medicare and, eventually, Social Security. Such a bargain might protect Republicans from so-called "Mediscare" attacks next fall, based on their embrace of an earlier GOP budget plan that would privatize and shrink Medicare for future beneficiaries.
The Republican tax-hike overture has turned heads largely because its sponsors rank among Washington's best-known critics of tax increases. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is a former head of the conservative Club for Growth. Backers of his plan include Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, who holds similar stature among fiscal conservatives.
Both are members of the 12-person bipartisan "supercommittee" tasked with reaching a debt-reduction deal by Wednesday.
Toomey's plan would raise $300 billion in new tax revenues while overhauling the federal tax code. Republican officials say it would drop the top tax rate on personal income to 28 percent from the current 35 percent. It would reduce or eliminate some well-known itemized deductions and reduce the corporate tax rate.
The plan also would extend the Bush-era tax cuts, set to expire at the end of 2012. Most Democrats oppose that idea. It also would trim cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients.
But congressional Democrats have not accepted Toomey's offer. They have called for greater revenue increases, and different priorities for spending cuts.
If the supercommittee fails to reach a $1.2 trillion deficit-cutting deal by Wednesday, automatic spending cuts totaling that amount would take effect — but not until 2013.
The absence of an imminent crisis helps explain the lack of urgency on Capitol Hill this week, despite the deadline approaching.
If the supercommittee fails, many lawmakers and senior aides say a debt-reduction deal is unlikely until after the 2012 elections.
Information from Washington Post was used in this report.