The White House has seized on growing signs of a split within the Republican party over whether to extend the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.
Eric Cantor, the number two Republican in the House of Representatives, on Monday directly contradicted John Boehner, the minority leader, when he called for a vote to extend the expiring 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for all income groups, including the wealthiest 3 per cent of Americans.
A day earlier Mr Boehner took many in his party by surprise when he told CBS he would be prepared to vote for a bill that would extend the tax cuts only for the middle classes, which is the White House’s position and that of most of the Democratic party.
“If the only option I have is to vote for some of those tax reductions, I’ll vote for it,” Mr Boehner said, in a comment welcomed by the White House.
But Mr Cantor, who has recently co-written a book, Young Guns, presenting himself as the vanguard of the next generation of the Republican leadership, issued a sharply conflicting statement.
“Raising taxes in this environment is a non-starter for me,” Mr Cantor said.
“I am calling on Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and President [Barack] Obama to allow all members of the House – Republican and Democrat – to vote on legislation that would prevent tax increases for every American.”
The divergence between Mr Boehner and Mr Cantor is likely to play into concerns about whether the Republican leadership will be able to keep control of its anti-tax Tea Party wing should it gain control of the House in the forthcoming midterm elections.
Polls show most Americans supporting Mr Obama’s argument that the wealthiest citizens should pay higher taxes. But a large source of the energy within the Republican base, which is a key determinant of who wins in low-turnout midterm polls, comes from opposition to any kind of tax – or spending – increase.
Mr Boehner’s surprise concession on Sunday was thought to be motivated by worries that the White House would succeed in portraying the Republicans as the party of the rich.
“My guess is that Boehner saw some private polls that showed this issue could upset the apple cart between now and November 2,” said Scott Lilly, a congressional expert at the liberal Center for American Progress. “But it looks like the libertarian wing of the party is very unhappy with what he said.”
However, the White House is also facing a split on its own side, with five centrist Democratic senators calling for an extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts for another two years.
Peter Orszag, Mr Obama’s former budget director, has also complicated the issue by arguing for a reversal of all the tax cuts in order to rein in the deficit.
Last week Mr Obama declined to say he would veto a bill that extended the tax cuts for the wealthy.