Sen. Ben Nelson: Norquist tax pledge shouldn't become 'trap' to debt deal

Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), the only Senate Democrat to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, says he will not let it stop him from backing a deficit-reduction package that raises new taxes.

Nelson, who is retiring from Congress at the end of the year, said that signatories of the pledge should not let it become “a trap.”

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Democrats say the anti-tax pledge authored by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, is the biggest obstacle to reaching a deal to reduce the deficit.

Extension of the Bush tax cuts, avoiding an automatic $1.2 trillion cut to discretionary spending and raising the nation’s debt limit may well hinge on getting a broader deficit deal.

“I look at the pledge as a commitment, not a trap. If it was set as a trap, then it’s unfortunate. I have attempted to, and I think others too, to abide by the spirit of it,” Nelson told The Hill. “I don’t think that it ought to be misused by anyone either.”

The pledge states that those who sign it will oppose “any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses.”

It further states that signatories will “oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

Nelson says cutting spending should be the priority.

“Let me put it this way, the only time I’ll ever consider getting net new revenues or any increase like that is after all the cutting is done,” he said.

He said it would still be in the spirit of the tax pledge to support a major deficit reduction that included some new taxes. One rationale is that by cutting the deficit now, it makes it less likely tax hikes will be needed in the future.

Norquist vigorously disagrees with this interpretation at a time when some Senate Republicans have privately suggested they could support tax increases as part of a broad deficit-reduction deal.

“Nelson took the pledge last time and we had a conversation about it and understood exactly what it was,” Norquist said.

Norquist said that voting for any legislation that raises the net level of federal taxation violates the pledge. Period.

Norquist said Nelson broke the pledge when he voted for the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But Norquist says violating the pledge does not get a lawmaker out of his or her commitment.

“Every once in a while someone asks, ‘If someone breaks their pledge, does that get them out of the pledge?’ No. No more than committing adultery gets you out of a marriage,” he said.

Norquist said his group spent about $750,000 in media ads “educating the people of his great state about his voting record” and believes it lowered Nelson’s approval rating enough to push him into retirement.

Norquist disputes that even $1 dollar in tax increases could be justified by $10 in spending cuts. He has pointed to the deficit-reduction deal former President Ronald Reagan struck with congressional Democrats in 1982. The tax increases stuck but many of the spending cuts failed to materialize.

“Not in the history of the world has anyone been offered a bill that was all this wonderful spending cuts and the teeny little pimple of a tax cut. The 10-to-1 fantasy doesn’t exist in the real world,” Norquist said.

Nelson, however, says the Taxpayer Protection Pledge should be subject to interpretation because it is so concise.

“It doesn’t have exculpatory language in case of depression or in case of war,” he said. “I think it has to be interpreted appropriately.”

He added that tax reform, which many Republicans support, would increase taxes on some people and businesses, even if it reduced the net level of taxation.

He said someone’s “net tax burden might go up if someone’s goes down.”

“Is that a violation?” he asked.