WASHINGTON — The no-higher-taxes-ever pledge long promoted by activist Grover Norquist has proven popular among Nebraska and Iowa Republicans.
Every member of Nebraska's congressional delegation, including soon-to-be Sen. Deb Fischer, has signed. So have both men who represent western Iowa in the U.S. House.
But unlike Norquist, most of them told The World-Herald this week that they could support a broad budget agreement that addresses entitlement spending and avoids the so-called “fiscal cliff,” even if the deal ends up including higher tax revenues.
They aren't the only ones parting ways with Norquist, who heads the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform. Several senior Republicans on Capitol Hill have made clear they do not feel beholden.
Norquist opposes tax increases of any kind, including eliminating deductions. He has insisted on unyielding positions from lawmakers and, for years, has held outsized sway in the Republican Party for someone outside of public office. His pledge doesn't allow any change to the tax code that adds even a dollar to revenues.
House Speaker John Boehner in 2011 called that notion unrealistic and dismissed Norquist as “some random person,” not a major force in the GOP.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said Norquist himself undermined the pledge when he said previously that lawmakers could support abolishing tax credits for ethanol without violating the pledge — so long as they supported offsetting tax cuts in a bill that never received a vote.
“He blew a massive hole through his pledge,” Johanns said.
While Johanns opposes higher tax rates on principle, he said there are many ways to raise tax revenues without violating the pledge.
“Depending upon how willing they are to reform what's driving the spending, which is entitlements, I'll be willing to talk about slimming down (tax) deductions, closing loopholes,” Johanns said.
Norquist has said he keeps original copies of the politicians' pledges locked away in a fireproof vault, but given the talk around the Capitol this week, one has to wonder if they're worth the paper they're printed on.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker says the only pledge he will keep is his oath of office. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says no one in his home state of Virginia is talking about what leaders in Washington refer to simply as “The Pledge,” a Norquist invention that dates to 1986.
It's quite an about-face for senior members of a party that long stood firmly against almost any notion of tax increases.
The reality of a nation in a debt crisis is forcing some to moderate their opposition to any increase in how much Americans pay to support their government. GOP legislators and Democratic President Barack Obama's White House are haggling over ways to reach agreement on detailed tax adjustments and spending cuts before automatic, blunt-force tax increases and spending cuts arrive with the new year.
“The pledge is not as applicable to this situation, because doing nothing is what makes taxes go up,” said Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee who, like others interviewed for this article, opposes increasing tax rates. “If we have a package that really addresses what our economy needs and what we should avoid ... I don't see the pledge being an issue.”
Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, understands that everything is on the table, said his chief of staff, James Carstensen. He will judge any proposal on its merits, Carstensen said.
“He's not worried about a pledge to Grover Norquist,” Carstensen said. “His concern is about the people of Iowa and what's best for them.”
Republicans nationally have been downplaying the pledge's significance.
“Oh, I signed it,” Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said on Fox News, adding he still supports its goals. “But we've got to deal with the crisis we face. We've got to deal with the political reality of the president's victory.”
The naysaying is raising questions about Norquist's position of power within the national GOP — a notion he calls ridiculous.
“Nobody's turning on me,” Norquist said.
But he has indicated that he would turn on lawmakers who defy him, starting with Corker, whose opinion piece Monday in the Washington Post outlined an alternative to the budget breakdown that includes more revenue.
“Corker was elected to the Senate because he took the pledge,” Norquist told Fox News. “He would not be a senator today if he hadn't made that commitment. If he breaks it, he's going to have to have a conversation with the people of Tennessee about his keeping his word.”
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., has made plain that he no longer feels bound by the pledge, describing it as too absolute and constraining to creative policy-making.
But his Iowa colleague, Rep. Steve King, has a different attitude. King isn't opposed to changing the tax code. He actually favors scrapping the current code altogether and replacing it with a national sales tax.
But he's not about to back off his devotion.
“I signed the pledge, and I intend to keep my word,” King said. “I'm glad that Grover Norquist is in the middle of this mix. I'm glad that he's done the work that he's done in this town ... and I hope he stands right in there.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is one of only 13 Republicans in the House or Senate who have not signed the pledge. Grassley has said he doesn't sign any such pledges on principle, although he opposes tax increases.
He said Wednesday that he has seen the sway of Norquist's pledge decrease over time.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said his own signature on the pledge was never intended to be used “into perpetuity” and criticized Norquist for using the pledge to position himself as a power broker.
“When the decision as to what is a tax increase is left to one person's interpretation, you get sort of unusual results,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he'll reserve judgment on any budget deal until something specific is in front of him.
Newfound GOP disdain toward Norquist could be motivated, at least in part, by Democratic efforts to paint Republicans as unbending partisans who refuse to compromise. A recent CNN poll showed that Americans are more inclined to blame Republicans in Congress than Obama if no deal is reached.
Seven in 10 say Republicans have not done enough to cooperate with Obama, although the poll also found that nearly half believe Obama hasn't done enough to cooperate with Republicans.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., signed Norquist's pledge but says now that he's open to a deal that includes some new tax revenues. Still, he said, the president needs to work across the aisle.
“He's not dealing with terrorists, he's dealing with Republicans who don't want to raise taxes,” Terry said.
Terry said Obama has an incentive to allow the country to go over the cliff and then blame Republicans.
“We're screwed either way,” Terry said. “We really have no leverage in these discussions.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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