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GOP Pushback On No-Tax Norquist: Less Than Meets The Eye

Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, speaks on Nov. 5, 2011, in Washington, D.C.
Nicholas Kamm
AFP/Getty Images
Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, speaks on Nov. 5, 2011, in Washington, D.C.

A handful of congressional Republicans after finishing their Thanksgiving dinners decided to give anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist the brushoff, saying they wouldn't abide by his "no new taxes" pledge as they work on a budget deal.

Breathless coverage ensued.

"Move over, Grover?" read one headline.

"Republicans Buck Norquist on Tax Pledge," said another.

Irrational exuberance commenced about the possibility of a bitterly divided Congress avoiding the looming "fiscal cliff" — and more than $1 billion in automatic domestic and defense spending cuts — by reaching a big budget deal by the end of the year.

So, are we to assume it's a new day in D.C. because GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Bob Corker of Tennessee, and Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, have said they're no longer obligated to keep the pledge they made to Norquist?

"Oh, BS," says Steve Bell, senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Except that the blunt-spoken Bell, who has worked on economic issues on Capitol Hill and beyond since the mid-1970s, didn't use an abbreviation for his epithet.

In Bell's estimation, the Norquist "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," and whether or not one adheres to it, are not central to Congress' budget dilemma.

"I don't think it's the pledge that's the problem," Bell says. "This thing is not going to founder on taxes. It's going to founder on entitlement cuts."

Norquist told us Monday that he's equally unimpressed with the import of the pledge defections.

"Chambliss, Graham and Peter King? None are in leadership roles, none lead on tax policy, and all three of them said the same thing two years ago," he says.

Norquist notes that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has said he's not bringing entitlements to the negotiating table.

Wait — so the movement by a few Republicans to push back on Norquist's no-new-taxes purity pledge (which has been taken by 41 of 47 current Senate Republicans and 238 of 242 House Republicans, though the numbers will be somewhat less when the new Congress comes in next year) isn't a huge step to agreement?

"If these guys got a significant deal on Medicare and Medicaid, of course they're going to make a deal on revenues," Bell predicts.

With Reid resisting including entitlement cuts as part of the budget discussion, what's left is the White House, and what deal it may be willing to make on entitlement cuts and impose on party members emboldened by Election Day successes.

The administration has said it is open to a grand bargain, as long as revenues are part of the agreement. President Obama is insistent that the deal include raising taxes on those earning $250,000 and more, tantamount to a rollback of some of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts. Norquist argues that the tax cuts, once viewed as a temporary budget fix, have been in effect long enough to be considered permanent and any rollback would be viewed as a tax increase.

During budget negotiations last fall, Obama proposed Medicare cuts of about $250 billion over the coming decade, about $110 billion in Medicaid cuts, and a slowing of the growth rate of Social Security.

Heather Boushey, a senior economist for the liberal Center for American Progress, says that the outcome of the recent election should send a message to Republicans to come to the table.

"The Republican leadership over the past couple of years has taken the U.S. economy to the brink — over the debt ceiling, the budget," she says. "It appears from the outcome of the election that holding the economy hostage to an unelected person — Grover Norquist — doesn't appear what voters voted for."

Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform in the mid 1980s. He and the organization oppose on principle tax increases and seek to reduce government revenues as a percentage of the nation's gross domestic product.

Boushey says that the pledge talk suggests that more Republicans may be open to compromise.

Mark McKinnon, a political adviser whose clients included former President George W. Bush and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, agrees.

"Everyone knows the pledge is a barrier to a reasonable outcome," he said. "Even the House Republicans know they have to give on the revenue side somewhere, somehow."

"It's all getting down to semantics of what the pledge really means, and whether it's anachronistic in the current reality," he says.

When asked about Norquist's continuing influence on this no-tax position, which has become integral to the modern GOP, McKinnon said this: "Grover still swings a hammer. There just aren't as many nails."

Bell, of the Bipartisan Policy Center, is less sanguine. He says he could envision Congress devising a "little junky thing full of gimmicks" that will obviate or put off the fiscal cliff and "sequestration" that triggers automatic spending cuts.

The possibility of a grand bargain?

"Very unlikely," he says.

For Norquist, that sounds just fine.

"I think the sequester would help the economy," he said Monday afternoon, as he hurried off the phone for an appearance on Fox News. "The growth of the government would be slowed based on what Obama planned to spend."

"I think we should do the sequester — there's no reason not to," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran
Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.