By Thomas Ferraro and David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a U.S. Congress packed with big egos, Tom Cole keeps a low profile but isn't afraid to speak his mind.
He did so on Wednesday, breaking ranks with Republicans by suggesting that they agree to President Barack Obama's plans to extend Bush-era tax rates on all but the wealthiest Americans.
The comments thrust Cole, 63, into the spotlight, drawing a swift rebuke from House Speaker John Boehner and giving hope to Democrats that Republicans' opposition to any and all tax hikes was starting to crack.
"Tom Cole is now our favorite Republican," a senior Democratic aide said of the Oklahoma conservative first elected to the House a decade ago.
What Cole did - initially behind closed doors on Tuesday - was to urge colleagues to accept Obama's offer to renew tax cuts this year for 98 percent of Americans, and put off for another day a battle over the other 2 percent, those earning more than $250,000.
This would remove the "Sword of Damocles" hanging over the middle class, he told Reuters, and improve Republicans' negotiating position over the "fiscal cliff" of $600 billion in year-end tax hikes and federal spending cuts that threaten to plunge the United States back into recession.
Republicans have insisted that Obama cave and renew all of the tax cuts to avoid the cliff, but they want to extract big spending cuts on the Medicare and Social Security benefits programs for the elderly and pursue a sweeping tax reform plan next year.
"My advice was solicited by my own leadership in what was supposedly confidential meetings," Cole told Reuters on Wednesday after his suggestion was made public by Politico.
"Something leaked, that's hardly a surprise in Washington, I guess. And so it's now public, but that's fine," Cole added.
"I'm happy to make my argument, make my case. It doesn't mean that I'm not going to support my team, and support my speaker, because I will."
THANKS, BUT NO THANKS
Cole said reaction among fellow Republicans seemed mixed.
"That's a good idea," said Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas. "We think we can still argue about the other 2 percent, but let's get the 98 percent done."
But Boehner, who is leading the negotiations with Obama, shot the idea down, affirming his opposition to tax rate hikes.
"I told Tom earlier ... that I disagreed with him," Boehner told a Capitol Hill news conference. "You're not going to grow the economy if you raise taxes on the top two rates."
Anti-tax hike activist Grover Norquist on Wednesday dismissed Cole's suggestions as more "impure thoughts" by Republican lawmakers.
"They've been thinking about raising taxes, but they haven't done it," said Norquist, who has demanded that lawmakers sign a pledge against tax hikes.
Cole, a fifth-generation Oklahoman and a Native American member of the Chickasaw Nation Tribe, is known as one of the House's most pragmatic Republicans.
Although a prominent member of the House Appropriations and Budget committees, he does not draw invitations to spout views on the Sunday TV talk shows. But he commands respect on Capitol Hill from members of both parties.
"Tom Cole is a very smart and savvy member of our conference who is attempting to make sure that all the viewpoints of our conference are heard from," said Representative Pete Sessions, a member of House Republican leadership.
But a "vast majority" of Republicans oppose tax rate increases on the wealthy because they believe it would hurt job growth, Sessions said.
Cole is seen as a staunch supporter of Boehner despite earlier differences, including complaints about Cole's stewardship of the 2008 House Republican campaign committee, which came up far short in its bid to take back the chamber that they now control.
Cole had no problem with his own House campaign this fall, winning a sixth term with 68 percent of the vote in Oklahoma's 4th District, which stretches from the Oklahoma City suburbs south to the Texas border. It includes the college town of Norman, home of the University of Oklahoma, where Cole taught history before getting into politics in the late 1980s.
Often in Washington when a member of Congress breaks ranks with leadership, they try to downplay it or claim that they were misquoted or taken out of context.
But Cole, who is used to defending a thesis, stuck by his remarks when speaking with a group of reporters on Wednesday after another closed-door meeting with Republican colleagues.
"If we do nothing, rates are going to go up for every American," Cole said. "I just don't think we should allow that to happen."
Cole said it's time to find common ground.
"We all agree that we're not going to raise taxes on people that make less than $250,000," Cole said. "We should just take them out of this discussion right now."
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)