Some GOP no’s on ‘pledge’ could complicate debt talks

A small group of Republican lawmakers has steadfastly resisted the Taxpayer Protection Pledge that has emerged as one of the biggest obstacles to reaching a deficit-reduction deal with Democrats.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have declared tax increases off-limits in talks with the White House about raising the debt limit. But some members of their caucus aren’t willing to sign their names to a document that would close the door to all future tax increases. 

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The Pledge, as it’s often called in Washington, is the brainchild of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who has used it for years to pressure Republicans to keep their distance from revenue-raising tax proposals.

Only seven Republicans in the Senate and six in the House have declined to sign the pledge, which states that a lawmaker will oppose all legislation that would raise taxes. The group of holdouts in the Senate is significant, because a few Republican defections could help Democrats move a deficit-reduction package that includes tax increases.

If Democrats decide to move a plan under special budget reconciliation rules, they would need only 50 votes to pass it. Only one Senate Democrat, Ben Nelson (Neb.), who faces a very competitive race in 2012, has signed Norquist’s pledge.

The decision not to sign the pledge has emerged as a campaign issue for two Republican senators facing primary challenges: Dick Lugar (Ind.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

Lugar’s spokesman explained that his boss admires Norquist’s fight against tax increases but has declined to embrace the anti-tax pledge because he supports an alternative plan to eliminate the income tax and the IRS altogether.

“He supports the Fair Tax, ending the income tax, eliminating the IRS and putting in place a consumption tax,” said Andy Fisher, Lugar’s spokesman.

Fisher noted that Lugar pushed a consumption tax plan when he ran for president in 1996, and was one of the first members of the Senate to endorse it.

Lugar’s challenger in next year’s Republican primary questions that explanation.

Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock said supporting the Fair Tax should not prevent Lugar from signing the pledge.

“If he wants to come out and support the Fair Tax, that’s supposed to be revenue-neutral, so he shouldn’t have a problem signing the no-new-taxes pledge,” said Mourdock, who has signed it. “This is one of the definitional issues that separates Sen. Lugar and myself.”

Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said he hasn’t signed the pledge because he shares Lugar’s concern that it could derail the implementation of a fair tax.

“My commitment to the Fair Tax and a common-sense tax overhaul makes it impossible for me to support the second component of the Pledge, which states that I must ‘oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates,’ ” Woodall said in a statement.

Norquist says the pledge does not conflict with the Fair Tax.

“It doesn’t,” he said. “If you’re taking the income tax to zero, you’re not raising the income tax.”

Norquist said he met with Woodall to discuss their differences and thought the freshman lawmaker was about to sign, but that has yet to happen.

Snowe’s office said the senator’s bona fides on taxes are beyond question, despite her refusal to back the pledge. 

“Generally, the senator does not sign pledges. She has a strong record as an advocate and champion of fiscally conservative policies, including voting for tax cuts, voting in the House and Senate against tax increases, supporting a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution and a line-item veto, and she proposed a trigger using surpluses in 2001 to pay down the national debt,” a spokesman for Snowe said.

One of her 2012 GOP primary opponents was quick to bash her for not taking a firm stance against future tax increases.

“It’s no surprise that the Senate’s most liberal Republican refuses to take a stand against raising taxes. Snowe has consistently proven she favors bigger government, more spending and higher taxes,” said Scott D’Amboise, who is trying to rally Tea Party support to unseat Snowe.

Norquist has used the pledge in recent months to batter three Republicans who took part in the Senate’s Gang of Six talks, which were organized to craft a deficit-reduction plan based on the proposal from President Obama’s fiscal commission.

The fiscal commission’s blueprint called for raising as much as a trillion dollars over the next decade through the elimination of niche tax breaks.

Norquist held the pledge over the heads of the Republicans in the Gang until Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the group’s conservative leader, dropped out.

The pledge has become Republican doctrine, and a major obstacle in the debt-ceiling talks led by Vice President Biden. Signatories vow to oppose any and all efforts to raise the marginal income tax rates for individuals and businesses, and to oppose any reduction or elimination of tax credits unless matched dollar for dollar by reduced tax rates.

This has emerged as a problem for Biden, who has insisted that tax increases be part of any final deal. Two of his negotiating partners, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), have signed the pledge.

Most Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), say they have a personal policy against signing pledges and campaign petitions.

“Sen. Grassley doesn’t sign pledges separate from the Senate oath of office to support and defend the Constitution,” said Grassley’s spokeswoman, Jill Kozeny.

She said Grassley established his bona fides on tax policy while serving as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, where he moved legislation to cut taxes by $2 trillion.

An aide to Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said his boss has an office policy against signing petitions.

A spokesman for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she “does not sign pledges.”

“She pledges loyalty to the Constitution and allegiance to the flag,” said Collins aide Kevin Kelley.

Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) also cited policies against signing pledges but affirmed their opposition to tax increases. 

Freshman Reps. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) and Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) gave similar answers, as did Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.).

“Rep. Hanna is focusing on the pledges he has made to his wife, the Constitution of the United States and the people of upstate New York,” said Renee Gamela, a spokeswoman for Hanna.

Dan Scandling, a spokesman for Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, said his boss “has a long record of not signing pledges.”

The only pledge Wolf signed recently was a civility pledge that circulated through the House last year. But Scandling said it was an exception because it did not affect policymaking.

That hasn’t reassured Norquist, though. He is concerned about an op-ed Wolf wrote in The Washington Post earlier this year that praised the Gang of Six and Obama’s fiscal commission.

Wolf criticized Norquist for using “bullying tactics” to oppose Coburn’s effort to eliminate tax breaks for ethanol production.

Republicans who have declined to sign the Taxpayer Pledge: 

Senate

John Barrasso (Wyo.)
Thad Cochran (Miss.)
Susan Collins (Maine)
Chuck Grassley (Iowa)
John Hoeven (N.D.)
Dick Lugar (Ind.)
Olympia Snowe (Maine)
 

House

Richard Hanna (N.Y.)
Todd Platts (Pa.)
Rob Wittman (Va.)
Frank Wolf (Va.)
Rob Woodall (Ga.)
Kevin Yoder (Kan.)