Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Writhing out of Norquist's embrace, part III

Grover Norquist is insisting on his bond with the trio of conservative Senators that have begun negotiations on a comprehensive tax/budget reform deal. But Chambliss/Coburn/Crapo are looking for a "pound of flesh/not one drop of blood" loophole.

Shakespeare's merchant had a perfect legal right to claim a pound of flesh from Antonio, who had pledged it to him if he could not repay his debt on time. But Shylock, it was decreed in court,  had no more right than anyone else to shed blood.

In the past two days, Chambliss and Coburn have argued, in effect, that while they promised never to raise taxes, they did not promise to reduce the United States to insolvency. To reduce the deficit to a manageable level, "“We’ve got to close the revenue gap," as Chambliss put it on Monday. 

First, though, they've got to close the rhetoric gap, embodied in Norquist's no-new-taxes pledge. To recap: when reports broke that the conservative 3Cs were working with three Democratic counterpart on a bipartisan budget deal that would include some combination of spending cuts and revenue increases, Norquist sent an open letter reminding them of their pledge never to raise taxes. As I noted at the time,  CCC's carefully-worded response promised to lower marginal rates but most pointedly did not promise that offsetting those reductions by closing or reducing various tax breaks would not result in a net increase in revenue. The letter pitted the "special interests" who would lose tax breaks in an imagined future deal against  the 'taxpayers' whom they were pledged to protect. What it did not note is that most of us are both (see: Chambliss, Coburn, Crapo to Norquist: Kowtow or brush-off?)

Yesterday, the Times reported that Chambliss broke out more explicitly, in a joint appearance with Democrat Mark Warner on Monday (cited above; my take here).  Today, Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown reports further pushback from both Chambliss and Coburn.

Many observers read the Chambliss/Coburn/Crapo letter to Norquist as a straightforward reiteration of the no-new-taxes-ever pledge. Politico reports that Norquist very pointedly has cast it as such:
Norquist said he interpreted the letter as confirmation that the Republican senators believe “there should be no new tax increases, period.” “Now, we are all happy campers because they agreed to not support tax increases but revenue increases that would stem from pro-growth policies,” Norquist said.
Chambliss isn't having it, though -- at least for now:
But in a sign of how the environment might be changing, Norquist’s threat has been a nonfactor inside the bipartisan Senate talks, sources close to the negotiations said.

“Grover is Grover,” Chambliss said dismissively, when asked about Norquist’s warnings.

And less emphatically, Coburn is also declaring independence:
Under no circumstances should Congress raise new revenues to solve the problem, [Norquist] says.

Coburn usually would agree. But when it comes to taming the $14 trillion debt — a challenge Coburn has called “a matter of national survival” — he won’t rule it out.

“I don’t have a bottom line. I’m open to solving our very acute problems,” Coburn said Tuesday, when asked whether he would consider raising taxes.

Remember in early 2009, when a short parade of Republicans stepped up to denounce incendiary demagogic rhetoric from Rush Limbaugh -- and then, one by one, recanted and begged for forgiveness? Will the GOP once again knuckle under to unelected extremists who drive party policy?  Or will they tell Norquist where to get off?

The Politico story included one interesting shot across Norquist's bow:
One source said the credibility and influence of Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform, has been damaged by its association with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and the K Street Project, a defunct effort under the former Republican majority to purge lobbying shops of Democrats — anonymous criticisms Norquist brushed off Tuesday as “nonfactors.”
It would be a pretty irony if Republican leaders used the excesses of the previous season of GOP House control to break free of the extremism that holds the party hostage now.  But I doubt that that's how it will play out.

See also:
Chambliss, Coburn, Crapo to Norquist: Kowtow or brush-off?
Saxby Chambliss seizes the freedom to acknowledge that 2+2 = 4

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