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Sen. Tom Coburn’s war on ethanol tax subsidies — and his ideological battle with anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist — will finally come to a vote Tuesday after the Oklahoma Republican launched a sneak attack that caught opponents and party leaders off guard.
Last week, Coburn effectively hijacked the floor, using Senate rules in a surprising way to force the issue.
Earlier in the week, he had introduced an unrelated amendment to the Economic Development Administration bill. On Thursday, he called it up, substituted it with one gutting ethanol tax subsidies and tariffs, and immediately filed a motion to cut off debate before anyone knew what was happening.
Any Senator can demand a vote to end debate —or file a motion to invoke cloture — with the support of 16 Senators, which Coburn had quietly secured.
The move is extremely unusual in the Senate, where it is generally the prerogative of the Majority Leader to set the schedule. But it’s a sign of the frustration Senators have with a sclerotic chamber where both parties routinely block votes and little is getting accomplished.
Coburn’s gambit had Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform, scrambling to play defense. Norquist considers Coburn’s amendment a tax increase and a violation of the pledge most Republicans have signed to never support one.
The dispute over the $6 billion a year ethanol tax credit is also a proxy fight in the larger war over whether Republicans should support eliminating tax breaks as part of a broader deficit reduction package.
“The days of placing spending programs in the tax code and giving them holy status are over,” Coburn said in a statement Friday.
Norquist said Coburn is on a mission to legitimize tax increases.
Coburn is trying “to get a bunch of Republicans to vote for a small tax increase, and then he says, ‘A ha ha!’ Then, having established this principle, let’s go ahead and raise a trillion in taxes,” Norquist said Friday.
“He may win some votes on this ethanol thing ... [but] I think when he tries to turn that into a trillion-dollar tax increase, he’ll find he doesn’t have as many friends as he thought,” he added.
Norquist also favors eliminating the ethanol credit, but only if it is offset with a tax cut somewhere else.
However, conservative momentum for the amendment has been building, a scenario that threatens to hand Norquist a mass repudiation of his tax purity test. So he looked for a way to let pledge-signers vote for it and still stay kosher.