WASHINGTON — The top Republican in the House says a recent proposal by GOP members of a special deficit committee is a "fair offer" despite criticism from conservatives who say it breaks the party's pledge on taxes.
"It's important for us in my opinion to reform the tax code," said Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, adding that a tax overhaul would "make America more competitive and produce economic growth."
And a top GOP member of the panel got some words of support from House Republicans Tuesday morning after briefing rank-and-file Republicans on last week's GOP proposal, which called for a net tax revenue increase of almost $300 billion in exchange for significantly lowered tax rates.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, co-chairman of the deficit panel said the badly divided group is still working in hopes of reaching an agreement.
"They haven't thrown me out, so I guess I got a good reception," Hensarling said of how House Republicans reacted to his status report on supercommittee talks. "I gave them an update, I told them we haven't lost hope yet but ... this week is crucial."
The panel faces an official target of next Wednesday to approve a plan, but sometime this week is a more realistic deadline, given the realities of drafting proposals into legal language and getting them "scored" by congressional analysts to measure their impact on the deficit.
With time growing short, Boehner and top Senate Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada met Tuesday morning on the panel's work. It's likely to require a push from such top leaders to help break an impasse over taxes and cuts to popular benefit programs.
Hensarling, a stout conservative, got support from some of his colleagues inside a closed-door GOP caucus Tuesday morning. He pointed out that a far larger tax increase looms at the end of next year with the expiration of the Bush-era cuts in tax rates, investments, and breaks for married couples and families with children.
"I thought it was a very serious effort in trying to break a logjam and get a compromise," said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "Held up against the big tax increase coming, I'll take that any day.
But last week's GOP plan has gotten a cold shoulder from GOP presidential hopefuls like former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Campaigning in Iowa, Gingrich said he would "do everything in my power to defeat" any committee deficit-reduction plan that includes higher taxes.
Jason Miner, a spokesman for Perry, said the Texas governor "wants to look at details but if those details include a tax increase he's not going to be for it. He does not favor higher taxes."
Some conservative Republicans are restive about last week's GOP proposal for higher tax revenues, which would be skimmed off the top in a future overhaul of the tax code that trades the elimination of many tax breaks for significantly lower income tax rates.
"I would still be concerned about any proposal that basically would violate a pledge on raising taxes," said Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J.
The committee has been at work for two months, hoping to succeed at a task that has defied the best efforts of high-ranking political leaders past and present.
The principal stumbling blocks revolve around taxes, on the one hand, and the large federal benefit programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, on the other.
Democrats are unwilling to agree to cuts in benefit programs unless Republicans will accept higher taxes, particularly on the highest-income individuals and families.
"I'm willing to make significant inroads into, for example, some of the mandatory programs, which include Medicare and Medicaid, but that comes as part of a big deal where everyone shares in the sacrifice," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., a liberal member of the panel.
Republicans counter that out-of-control spending largely accounts for the government's enormous budget deficits, and they say raising taxes will only complicate efforts to help the economy recover from the worst recession in more than seven decades.
At the same time, each side is grappling with the possible political consequences of the committee's work, with an eye on the 2012 campaign for control of the White House and Congress.
Liberal Democrats are highly reluctant to agree to curbs on programs the party long has been identified with, and last week members on the supercommittee jettisoned an earlier proposal to slow the rise in cost-of-living benefits for Social Security recipients.
The same goes for conservatives, many of whom fear the possible political cost of changing their positions in order to pursue a less-than-certain bipartisan compromise on deficit reduction.
Many GOP officeholders have signed a pledge circulated by Americans for Tax Reform not to vote for higher taxes. The organization is led by Grover Norquist, a conservative activist, although in comments to reporters Monday Cantor suggested that influence by an outsider isn't the dominant concern.
"It's not about Grover Norquist. It's about commitments that people made to the electorate they represent, the people that sent them here. That's what it's about," he said.
Conservative blogger Erick Erickson, whose views carry weight with some GOP lawmakers, weighed in Tuesday with a blunt attack on the proposed Republican compromise on taxes.
"The Republicans who back in June were telling us they would hold the line on tax increases have decided that they must have tax increases," Erickson wrote in a Tuesday morning post.