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Coburn, Norquist Tax Each Other

Douglas Graham/Roll Call

Ask anti-tax activist Grover Norquist about Sen. Tom Coburn’s willingness to consider tax increases as a part of a grand bargain with Democrats to rein in the deficit, and you’ll get an earful. 

But the conservative Oklahoma Republican just shrugged Wednesday when asked to comment on attacks from Norquist, who is president of Americans for Tax Reform, an advocacy group that, at least until recently, had long enjoyed a powerful grip on GOP politicians. Even Coburn is a signatory to ATR’s “No Tax Pledge,” viewed as a must for any Republican running for office. 

In an interview with Roll Call on Wednesday, Norquist unloaded on Coburn’s participation in the Senate’s bipartisan “gang of six” budget negotiations as well as his stance on the president’s deficit commission. He referred to the efforts of the gang of six as a sham, said the Senator was being used by Democrats to promote tax increases and accused the Oklahoman of being duplicitous in his previously stated opposition to tax increases. 

Coburn, who cruised to a second Senate term in 2010 and has long been viewed as among the most conservative and inflexible lawmakers on Capitol Hill, said the scale and urgency of the federal budget crisis has made it necessary to consider compromises that he might not have earlier in his career. Fixing the problem now means accepting the fact that Republicans can’t have everything their own way, he said.

“Any American who truly understands this problem knows that we’re going to have to come together and solve it, and we can’t have it all our own way. That lack of insight hurts their position,” Coburn said. 

Norquist disagrees. 

“That’s a fiction he makes up to cover up the fact that he wants to break his word to the people of Oklahoma,” he said. “He doesn’t understand. That’s why he’s not a Reagan Republican.”

Norquist’s latest eruption at Coburn reveals a long-simmering tension between the Senator and some in Washington’s conservative activist and think-tank communities. 

ATR has not been the only group to target the Oklahoman for his willingness to consider breaking with GOP orthodoxy on taxes. Heritage Action Network, an advocacy organization connected to the influential think tank Heritage Foundation, recently sent an email blast to conservatives nationwide, including in Oklahoma, urging them to “stop” the gang of six.

One political operative associated with a D.C.-based activist group said the perception of Coburn as an unwavering conservative stalwart has never been universally shared by the activist communities. Coburn is viewed by some as an insider and deal-maker as intent on getting votes as he is on holding the line on philosophical principles. 

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