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Are cracks beginning to form in GOP’s bedrock antitax pledge?

Does signing Grover Norquist’s antitax pledge mean a lawmaker is committed for life?
That would be a surprise to Rep. Steve LaTourette (R) of Ohio, who signed the pledge on May 5, 1994, when the national debt was nearing $4.7 trillion.

Does signing Grover Norquist’s antitax pledge mean a lawmaker is committed for life?

That would be a surprise to Rep. Steve LaTourette (R) of Ohio, who signed the pledge on May 5, 1994, when the national debt was nearing $4.7 trillion. Now, it’s closing in on $15 trillion.

“I don’t think I ever contemplated in 1994 that I was then bound to indentured servitude for the rest of my career,” says the nine-term lawmaker, a longtime ally of Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.

“I thought we could balance the budget in the 1990s, and we did it. But times have changed. We’re on track to owe $20 trillion, and to be beholden to some pledge when the future of the country is at stake is kind of silly,” he adds.

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The antitax pledge has been considered virtually inviolate by Republicans on Capitol Hill for more than two decades, but Representative LaTourette is not alone among Republicans in signaling a changed attitude toward the pledge’s strictures at a time of fiscal crisis.

Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), which started soliciting commitments to the pledge in 1986, lists 236 House Republicans and 40 Republican Senators in the 112th Congress as committed to the pledge. That’s all but six Republican House members and all but seven GOP senators.

But the ATR website doesn’t note when the members signed on or whether they renewed their pledge in the 112th Congress.

“My driver’s license expires, the milk in my refrigerator expires, the only thing that doesn’t expire is Grover Norquist’s pledge – and that’s nuts,” says Representative LaTourette.

The pledge is on the minds of many GOP lawmakers these days – and a Democrat or two – as Congress’s “super committee” struggles to find a plan to cut at least $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit over the next 10 years by a Nov. 23 deadline.

The GOP ban on tax hikes is a key sticking point in the deficit reduction panel’s deliberations. The pledge commits signers (1) to oppose any increase in tax rates as well as (2) any cuts to tax breaks, unless “matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

According to ATR president Grover Norquist, that means that even cutting a controversial $6 billion tax break for ethanol, as the Senate attempted and failed to achieve last summer, can’t be used for deficit reduction, unless Congress zeroes out the savings by cutting $6 billion in taxes elsewhere.

Freshman Rep. Reid Ribble (R) of Wisconsin says that he thought you could revisit the pledge every year “because they’ll be going around asking people where they’re at.” He was surprised that that is not the case.

Still, “you get out of something based on how you vote,” he says. “Going forward, I’m not going to sign anyone’s pledges at all.” He says he’s hearing from other GOP colleagues who no longer consider themselves bound by all aspects of the ATR pledge. “If they get beat up by Grover Norquist, that’s OK,” he says.

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“I’m not an ethanol subsidies guy,” he adds. “Some may view that as a violation of the pledge. I don’t. I want to get to a place where government is not choosing winners or losers based on tax rates or tax breaks.”

Representative Ribble’s reference to “winners and losers” is emerging as an important theme in the GOP response to the strictures of a pledge that most have signed. Asked whether he could vote to end tax breaks without offsets, Rep. Trent Franks (R) of Arizona said: “I’m one that believes in the free market with government’s role essentially as umpire, not as choosing winners and losers.”

“We need to do everything we can as Republicans to follow our own clarion call not to pick winners or losers either in the tax code or in government expenditures,” he added.

Speaker Boehner fields questions about the Norquist pledge at nearly every public appearance. At a press briefing on Nov. 3, he said, to laughter: “It’s not often I’m asked about some random person and what I think.”

“Our focus is on creating jobs, not talking about somebody’s personality,” he added. “Our conference is opposed to tax hikes because we believe that tax hikes will hurt our economy and put Americans out of work.”

But what is a tax hike? Is it raising rates on the wealthiest Americans? Apparently, yes. Is it also a tax hike to end a tax break without at the same time passing new tax cuts, as mandated by the pledge? Right now, that’s not so clear.

“Republicans, including Speaker Boehner, have been clear that they are not opposed to increased revenue as a result of tax reforms that lead to economic growth,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel, in an email on Nov. 7.

In that view, it could be possible to use reforms in the tax code, such as ending tax breaks, to in part lower tax rates and also increase net government revenue – a technical violation of the pledge, but possible bipartisan breakthrough on a path to cutting the deficit.

Republicans aren’t the only ones grappling with the strictures of the pledge. Rep. Rob Andrews of New Jersey, one of only two Democrats to have signed the taxpayer protection pledge, says he has asked ATR to remove his name from the list of supporters.

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“I signed the pledge in 1992, and I understood it to mean that for the next term, if I were reelected, I would not vote to raise taxes,” he says. “I honored that pledge.”

“But I never renewed it,” he adds. “I never considered it to be like my marriage vows, I’m married to Camille Andrews not Grover Norquist. I promised her to be faithful until death do us part, and I mean it. I did not promise him to oppose tax increases until death do us part.”

Meanwhile, Norquist’s position has not changed. The pledge, he says, is not to ATR or to him, personally. It’s from lawmakers to their constituents. Responding to sharp criticism from Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Norquist tweeted on Nov. 1. “Hey Harry Reid: if I became a Buddhist monk and moved to Himalayas no pledge taker would help you raise taxes. They promised their voters.”

Norquist dismisses the notion that the antitax pledge is temporary.

“The pledge is as good as long as you are in the same office,” says Norquist. “There’s no time limit on that. Imagine saying you are pro-life or pro-gun for the next two years. That doesn’t pass the laugh test.”