WASHINGTON - Sidestepping controversy, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., declined to take sides Monday on a proposal for higher taxes backed by fellow Republicans on Congress' supercommittee, yet expressed confidence the panel would agree on a deficit-reduction plan of at least $1.2 trillion by a Nov. 23 deadline.
A proposal for $300 billion in higher taxes has stirred grumbling within the ranks of congressional Republicans, for whom opposition to such measures has been political bedrock for more than two decades.
Separately, officials said that Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who outlined the plan last week in a closed-door meeting of four Republicans and three Democrats, has encountered criticism from fellow conservatives despite strong credentials as an opponent of higher taxes. " There's been a little bit, but it's been pretty muted," his spokeswoman, Nachama Soloveichik, said of the response.
Cantor's spokeswoman turned aside several emailed requests for the majority leader's views on the proposal. She said he hadn't seen the plan, and she referred to his comments at a news conference earlier in the day when he told reporters, "I'm not going to be opining as to any reports, hypotheticals or anything connected with their work."
Despite that pledge, Cantor was bullish in predicting agreement before the deadline and adding that a fallback requirement to cut $1.2 trillion from domestic and defense programs wouldn't be triggered.
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.
Despite intense talks late last week, there has been little indication of progress as age-old political divisions have re-emerged.
The principal stumbling blocks revolve around taxes on the one hand, and the large federal 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.
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 has long 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 office holders 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 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.
Republicans on the committee hailed Toomey's proposal last week as a breakthrough and a concession that could open the way to a deal.
But Democrats were dismissive, saying it amounted to a tax cut in disguise for the wealthy — the very taxpayers that they and Obama say should pay more. According to numerous officials, Toomey's proposal envisioned an additional $250 billion in revenue emerging from a sweeping revision of the tax code that would bring the top rate down from 35 percent to 28 percent while reducing or eliminating many commonly used itemized deductions.
In an interview on Sunday, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, co-chairman of the supercommittee said that while Republicans believe that higher revenues will hurt the economy, "within the context of the bipartisan negotiation with Democrats, clearly they are a reality."
He said that whatever "damage would be done by $250 billion of new taxes we think would be offset by a system that would help create jobs. And as we're dealing with the debt crisis, we don't want to make the jobs crisis even worse. So that's what has been put on the table."
"Balance doesn't mean 'half-right, half-wrong,' he wrote, referring to Obama's calls for a deficit-cutting plan that includes higher taxes and spending cuts. "It means you don't fall over." Jordan is chairman of the Republican Study Committee, an organization of conservative GOP members of the House.