Frustrated deficit hawk rips Norquist

The former co-chairman of President Obama’s debt commission ripped anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist on Wednesday, blaming him for standing in the way of a bipartisan solution to the deficit.

“What kind of a nut is this guy?” former GOP Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson said of Norquist. 

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Simpson’s new attack on Norquist comes as the president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) enjoys the upper hand in the ongoing battle on the debt commission’s recommendations. Norquist railed against the commission proposal last year as raising taxes by $1 trillion, and it subsequently fell short of the necessary votes. 

Over the last several months, the so-called Gang of Six senators attempted to put the commission plan into legislation, but that effort imploded last week.

Simpson told an audience at Wednesday’s Peter G. Peterson Foundation fiscal summit that Norquist was “some guy just wandering around the swamps taking a pledge from people when America was flush and then pushing people like Orrin Hatch off the cliff as if he were a commie.” 

 Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has been targeted by Tea Party activists as too centrist and has tacked to the right in the face of threats of a primary challenge from Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). 

 Simpson has said similar things to Norquist’s face as the two bickered publicly and privately. Norquist claims that Simpson has left him ranting voicemails, but has declined to release them to the media.

In addition to cutting spending and reforming entitlements, the debt commission’s plan used revenue from ending tax deductions to reduce the deficit. Norquist said that would violate his taxpayer pledge, a document signed by most Republicans that rules out tax increases. 

 GOP leaders in Congress, most notably Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have attracted praise from Norquist for their refusal to raise taxes.

Democrats have been frustrated by how most of the Republican Party is in lockstep with Norquist. Liberal-leaning MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell calls Norquist “the most powerful man in America who does not sleep in the White House.” 

Norquist wasn’t the only one taking barbs from Simpson on Wednesday. The ex-senator said AARP is standing in the way of a deal by blocking entitlement reforms.

 “If the American public get enthralled to Grover Norquist and the AARP, you won’t have a chance, we won’t make it at all,” he said. 

Asked for comment, Norquist said, “I suppose that the former senator can have fun calling me names if he wants, but his argument is with the Republican caucus in the House and the Senate and with the majority of the American people, who see this as a spending problem. And the only way to solve the spending problem is to spend less. 

 “I understand the Democrats are desperate to try to get the Republicans to violate their pledge so that they can get to the important business of raising taxes rather than cutting spending,” he said. 

AARP spokeswoman Mary Liz Burns said, “We once again respectfully disagree with Mr. Simpson’s characterization of the work that we have engaged in on behalf of Americans age 50 and older and their families for over 50 years. Today, there are real threats to the programs that Americans care deeply about, and AARP is working to prevent Congress from making harmful cuts to Social Security and Medicare as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling.”

 Norquist earlier this year pressured Sen. Tom Coburn to leave the Gang of Six talks and also lambasted the Oklahoma Republican’s effort to eliminate ethanol subsidies and use those funds to reduce the deficit. Coburn fired back repeatedly at Norquist, but the senator’s exit from the Gang of Six discussions has been viewed as a major win for the conservative activist. 

During a panel discussion Wednesday, New York Times columnist David Brooks said that GOP senators have told him the Coburn-Norquist spat appeared to have resulted in a Norquist victory. Brooks said the result is that the GOP is more firmly tied to its no-new-taxes pledge, to the private regret of some Republican senators. 

Simpson, along with voices from the Obama administration and Congress, contend that Republicans must compromise on tax revenue in order to strike a deal that will attack the nation’s record deficit. 

White House National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling, who is participating in bipartisan discussions on the debt ceiling being led by Vice President Biden, urged the GOP to relent on taxes. 

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“I think this is really holding back our chance to do something major. Because you can’t get the sense of shared sacrifice if revenues are completely off the table, number one. Number two, it’s hard to ask other people to do things perhaps on entitlements that they don’t want to do or haven’t wanted to do if there’s no willing[ness] to compromise on the revenue side,” Sperling said. 

He said hundreds of thousands of elderly nursing home patients and disabled kids would be cut off from care by the House GOP budget’s Medicaid cuts, all because the GOP has put itself in a “box” by refusing to raise revenue.

That point was also made by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the now-Gang of Five budget talks. He said that the GOP-led House budget calls for such deep and unpopular cuts to Medicare because of the anti-tax pledge. 

He indicated that the group believes the corporate tax reform should be revenue-neutral, and all revenue from eliminating deductions should be used to lower rates. But he said individual tax reform is different. 

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) has resisted Norquist’s pressure and is remaining in the talks, but he said it is challenging. 

Crapo said that since he voted for the fiscal commission’s tax reforms and engaged in Gang talks on the deficit, “the knives came out and they have not gone back in since.”

“Special-interest groups are prepared to fight any proposal to fight the status quo, and they are geared up,” he said. The senator said he has gotten many calls urging him to continue negotiating. 

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) indicated Wednesday that he has not given up hope that Coburn would come back to the negotiations at some point. He said there is no timeline to finish the discussions, nor plans to replace Coburn.