DES MOINES, Iowa — Republicans in Congress who took the politically risky step of voting to raise taxes now find themselves trying to fend off potential primary challenges next year from angry conservatives.
These lawmakers wasted little time in attempting to deliver an explanation that would be acceptable to the tea party and the GOP's right flank, and, perhaps, insulate themselves from a re-election battle against a fellow Republican. They've started defending last week's vote as one that preserves tax cuts for most Americans, while also promising to fight for spending cuts in upcoming debates over raising the nation's borrowing limit.
"In the end, he ensured that over 99 percent of Kentuckians will not pay higher income taxes," Mitch McConnell's campaign wrote in an email message to Kentucky voters the day after the Senate Republican leader supported the measure.
It was the first time in two decades that a significant number of Republicans voted for a tax increase: 33 senators and 85 representatives, who broke with the House GOP majority to support the bill that averted the "fiscal cliff" but raised taxes on upper incomes.
"The ones that voted for it, I think they will rue the day," Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby said after opposing the bill.
Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, put it this way: "It's not too early to be looking at 2014. I think there are going to be a lot of primary challenges. People are fed up."
Most if not all of these Republicans who voted to raise taxes are likely mindful of their party's recent history of primary battles that have pitted incumbents against tea party-backed insurgents. None of them is likely to be immune to the scrutiny — rising stars, powerful committee chairmen and Republicans in reliably Republican seats — expected to confront them when they return to their districts to stand for re-election in November 2014.
The vote was a dilemma for Republicans, who have pledged for decades not to raise taxes, but faced being blamed with raising taxes on all Americans, had Congress and the White House not reached a deal. The party got some cover from Grover Norquist, a leading anti-tax figure who described the bill, which preserved a series of tax cuts for most incomes, as "clearly a tax cut."
"It's a really tough vote. And it's a really tough vote to explain to Republicans," Michigan Republican consultant Stu Sandler said.
Lawmakers who could be vulnerable to a challenge include Michigan Rep. Dan Benishek and South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem, who bucked her tea party base and backed the bill, calling it "damage control."
"This makes her vulnerable and there will be discussion that she should have a primary challenge," said Joel Rosenthal, a former South Dakota Republican chairman. "Whether it materializes depends on votes down the road."
Some Democrats who opposed the deal also might be called to account by their own liberal bases for voting for spurning President Barack Obama and refusing to go along with his election-year pledge to raise taxes on America's top earners.
Among those who voted "no" were liberals such as Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. He criticized the bill as overly generous to wealthy Americans, and had supported Obama's original proposal to raise taxes on people earning at least $250,000 a year.
Harkin has not ruled out seeking a sixth term in 2014. His vote probably would prevent a primary challenge, but it could be tricky for him in a general election.
While House Republican delegations, such as New York's and Pennsylvania's voted for the bill, they did so likely with impunity because the GOP bases in their states aren't nearly as ideologically conservative as those in other parts of the country.
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