Sen. George Voinovich (Ohio) said the anti-tax pledge signed by his fellow Republicans conflicts with their responsibility as lawmakers to deal with the country's $13 trillion debt problem.
"I think that a lot of my colleagues have taken the pledge, and what they have to understand is that that pledge is inconsistent with the oath of office that they took when they became members of the United States Senate," said Voinovich last week at an event on the deficit organized by the center-left think tank Third Way.
A transcript of the event is available on Third Way's website.
Most GOP senators — 31 of 41 — have signed a pledge opposing any new tax increases. The pledge was started by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform in 1986. Signing it has become de rigueur for GOP candidates running for federal or state-wide offices across the country.
Voinovich, a long-time fiscal hawk who hasn't signed the pledge, said the American people may soon demand that lawmakers "act responsibly" in dealing with red ink. He attributed the gradual decrease in President Barack Obama's approval rating to the increase in the deficit — from $455 billion in 2008 to $1.4 trillion last year.
"And I think that many people, in their own families, have realized that they’ve been on a binge, spending too much," Voinovich said. "They’re cutting back. They’re starting to save money. And they’re asking the question, what’s our government doing?"
Voinovich, who is retiring at year's end after two terms in the Senate, has said that higher taxes must be considered by the White House fiscal commission, which consists of congressional Democrats, Republicans and outside experts appointed by Obama who will try to produce a plan to deal with the red ink.
Obama and members of the commission have said "everything is on the table" as they try to craft a plan, including tax increases, spending cuts and changes to entitlement benefits. While Democratic leaders in both chambers have agreed to hold floor votes on the commission's fiscal reform proposals, Republican leaders have been lukewarm toward the panel, calling instead for a "spending commission" that would only propose spending cuts.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said Wednesday that a deal for both new taxes and spending cuts — as Voinovich and other commission supporters have envisioned — wouldn't work, just like in the past. Budget deals under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush that sought to raise taxes and cut spending paved the way for more spending and more debt, Norquist said.
"At some point conversations about unicorns are tedious, because they don't exist in the real world," Norquist told The Hill. "Budget deals where they actually restrain spending and raise taxes are unicorns."
Norquist said the focus needs to be on spending cuts alone.
Voinovich warned that Republicans could start to suffer along with Democrats if they don't deal with the debt.
"You know, some of my Republican friends are saying, 'Oh, boy, you know, look at the president’s numbers,' and so forth, but they fail to realize, what are your numbers?" he said.
"People aren’t turning to the Republican Party; they’re becoming independent," he added. "They’re looking for responsible leadership, and maybe responsible leadership may become something that’s popular here in the next six months or so and we might get something out of this commission. But I have to tell you something: If we don’t get something out of that commission, we are over the cliff."
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who pushed the debt commission idea in the upper chamber and now serves on Obama's panel, said at last week's event that his party needs to be open to reforms to popular entitlement programs in order to find a real fiscal solution.
"I have had leaders of my party tell me they do not believe we need to touch Social Security or Medicare," Conrad said. "Well, you know, that’s just not real. That is just not reality. If we really care about the people who receive Social Security and Medicare, then we’ve got an obligation to fix it."