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Coburn, Norquist Tax Each Other

Douglas Graham/Roll Call

“I don’t know how large the gap is. But there’s definitely a gap in how he’s perceived on the inside versus the outside,” the political operative said. “He’s always been one to play ball, but in a hard line way.”

Coburn’s quiet falling out with the activist group began when he supported a health care reform plan that proposed changes in tax law that some conservatives, including Norquist, argued was a tax increase. The Coburn camp disagreed.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) appear to be in line with Norquist’s position — indicating that tax increases of any kind are off the table — in their rhetorical gamesmanship over increasing the debt limit and coming to a budget agreement with the White House. And McConnell this week downplayed the gang of six talks, saying the real negotiations would be conducted by a bipartisan group that has been meeting with Vice President Joseph Biden.

Though Coburn has personally attempted to avoid battling his critics, his office has been quick to defend the Senator’s participation in the gang of six and his flexibility on tax increases if they are coupled with structural fiscal reforms and massive spending cuts.

Last week, Coburn spokesman John Hart emailed his press list a release titled, “Chuck Colson calls out Norquist for defending corporate welfare.” (Colson is a well-known conservative and religious commentator who was ensnared in President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.)

Pressed to react to his spat with Norquist, Coburn said there has been much speculation about his budget negotiations, but that his critics know very little about them. In fact, the gang of six talks — based on the results of the deficit reduction commission that Coburn sat on — have yet to yield a document or deal of any kind. 

Coburn said those opposed to the gang of six, and the possibility that it might reach a compromise on taxes and spending, do not understand the magnitude of the nation’s fiscal crisis. 

“The real risk is, at what time are the decisions taken out of our hands and put in the hands of the international financial community,” Coburn said. “ATR may think that isn’t going to happen. But I can tell you, if we don’t fix our problems,
90 percent of the world’s economists say it is.”

Joining Coburn in the group are GOP Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Mike Crapo (Idaho), and Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad (N.D.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Mark Warner (Va.).

The Senator’s supporters note that for years Coburn was virtually a lone voice in the Congress in opposition to earmarks and subsidies to favored industries — particularly the ethanol subsidies promoted by the agriculture lobby. Norquist, these Republicans say, has supported ethanol subsidies and — through his promotion of the K Street Project for GOP lobbyists in the 1990s — earmarks. Hart’s Colson email addressed the ethanol issue. Additionally, Coburn supporters like to point out Norquist’s past connections to convicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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