(Adds Obama meeting with CEOs)
* Republican Cole suggests deal on raising tax rates on
* Boehner quickly rejects conservative's suggestion
* Obama, Boehner voice optimism on compromise
By Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Republican unity against
raising tax rates for the wealthy began to show cracks on
Wednesday after a conservative congressman said he would back an
agreement with President Barack Obama to raise rates on the rich
but extend tax cuts for income below $250,000.
With Congress scrambling to avert a series of tax increases
and spending cuts due to kick in at the end of the year - known
as the "fiscal cliff" - Representative Tom Cole said Republicans
should approve a deal ensuring 98 percent of Americans do not
suffer a tax increase that endangers the economic recovery.
With the lower tax rates enacted a decade ago under
Republican President George W. Bush due to expire on Dec. 31,
Obama and his Democrats have pushed to extend the lower rates
for most Americans while letting rates rise for wealthier
Republicans have been adamant about extending the lower tax
rates for all taxpayers, including households earning more than
$250,000 a year, and finding savings through the elimination of
tax loopholes and cuts in the costly Medicare and Medicaid
"If we have an opportunity to, right now, secure the Bush
tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people ... and then
continue to fight on these other issues, I think we should do
that," Cole, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma, told
Reuters in an interview.
"Why make the American people wait through 30 days of this,
wondering - 98 percent of them - if their taxes are going to go
up," Cole said.
The White House has expressed optimism that some Republicans
are showing flexibility on taxes. Obama met with chief
executives from top corporations, including Goldman Sachs
and Yahoo Inc, on Wednesday. The business leaders
expressed support for a deal that included higher tax rates for
wealthy Americans like themselves.
It is unclear whether the comments from Cole, a senior
Republican who has been loyal to the party's congressional
leadership, will lead to an eventual bipartisan compromise in
the high-stakes negotiations.
Also, the Bush tax cuts are just one part of a larger
deficit reduction plan lawmakers are trying to hammer out.
Cole said Republican leaders had sought opinions on his plan
from key House of Representatives members in a closed-door
meeting on Tuesday. He described the reaction as "mixed."
Republican congressional leaders stayed firm for now in
their public opposition to any tax rate increases as part of a
fiscal cliff agreement.
"I told Tom earlier ... that I disagreed with him," House of
Representatives Speaker John Boehner told reporters.
"You're not going to grow the economy if you raise taxes on
the top two rates," Boehner said, adding Republicans would be
willing to talk with Democrats about other kinds of revenue
increases along with spending cuts.
Boehner and the White House have an end-of-year deadline to
avoid triggering about $600 billion in tax increases and
spending cuts in January that could throw the economy back into
Boehner voiced optimism about striking a deal "sooner rather
than later," while Obama said he hoped to strike a deal with
Congress before Christmas. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner will
go to Capitol Hill on Thursday to meet on the issue with House
and Senate leaders from both parties.
With a month left before the deadline, markets are worried
about predictions that falling off the "fiscal cliff" could
trigger another recession. Analysts said a failure to compromise
by mid-December could trigger a selloff.
The S&P 500 rebounded from a 1 percent decline, gaining more
than 20 points from its low after Boehner's comments, to close
near the day's highs.
Cole's stance reverberated through the Capitol, where
Democrats have stood firm in their push to raise the top two
rates paid by the wealthy in an effort to shrink budget deficits
that have topped $1 trillion in each of the last four years.
Cole, said one senior House Republican aide, "is a
pragmatist at his core. He knows which way the political winds
are blowing" in his congressional district and in the country.
The aide added that while some in the House Republican
leadership "are probably cursing his name, when all is said and
done, he just may be shining a light" on what is to come in the
A senior Senate Democratic aide said Cole's pronouncement
"seems like Act Two of Boehner trying to explain reality to the
That refers to the large number of House Republicans elected
in 2010 with the support of small-government tea party activists
who vehemently oppose any tax increases. Boehner will have to
sell many of them on any final agreement with Obama.
Cole, the former head of the House Republican campaign
committee, is one of the party's most practical members and a
loyal supporter of Boehner.
His proposal could give Republicans political protection by
guaranteeing most Americans lower tax rates without forcing
lawmakers to cast a vote for higher rates for the wealthy. Those
higher rates would kick in automatically if Congress does
Representative Xavier Becerra, a member of House Democratic
leadership, said Cole's remarks showed that "a few Republicans
are beginning to break from the rigid theocracy of their party."
But even with Cole's remarks, there was still skepticism
among some Republican House aides that any tax increase could
clear the House and pass roadblocks in the Senate.
Several glimmers of hope for a compromise have surfaced
since Obama won a second term in the Nov. 6 election, with some
Republicans showing a willingness to consider revenue increases,
and some Democrats easing their opposition to new savings in the
costly government-run Medicare and Medicaid healthcare programs.
Obama has launched a campaign-style public relations push
for his effort to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. He
said on Tuesday he hoped to reach an agreement with lawmakers
Many Democrats and Republicans have speculated on the
possibility of a compromise that would raise income taxes on the
rich, but not to the level Obama wants.
While Obama has called for letting the rates rise for those
families with net incomes above $250,000, some Republican aides
have said a final compromise could provide a threshold of
$500,000 or $1 million, instead of $250,000.
Alternatively, negotiators could look at raising the current
35 percent top rate to a higher rate but not as high as the 39.6
percent Obama wants. Obama said earlier this month that he was
"open to new ideas" on the rates.
Obama's proposal would raise about $80 billion in new
revenues a year, which would go a long way toward replacing the
$109 billion in harsh, across-the-board domestic spending cuts
that are set to begin in 2013 unless Congress acts.
Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired the White House's 2010
deficit-reduction panel and is now working with chief executives
and others to try to broker a deal, met with Republican leaders
at the Capitol and said afterward that progress was being made.
"I think we will see give in all areas, if we're going to
get a deal done. If not, we're going to go over this cliff and I
think everybody realizes that would be disaster," he told
"Look, I'm not more optimistic or less optimistic. I'm
hopeful, but I wouldn't put me
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