Anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist’s influence over Senate Republicans slipped Tuesday, a development that could have implications for bipartisan budget talks as well as for the future of the party’s orthodoxy.
For decades, Norquist’s anti-tax pledge has dominated Republican politics, with most party members vowing — at Norquist’s behest — to never raise taxes or to offset any tax increases wtith tax cuts elsewhere.
But the No. 3 Senate GOP leader said Tuesday that eliminating tax breaks might be a legitimate way to solve the nation’s current fiscal crisis. “My view is a good way to reduce the debt is to get rid of unwarranted tax breaks,” GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said.
Those comments came amid the Senate’s consideration Tuesday of Sen. Tom Coburn’s amendment to eliminate ethanol tax subsidies and cut the deficit by $3 billion. Though Norquist had originally called the proposal a tax increase, 34 Republicans voted with the Oklahoma Republican — albeit after Norquist gave Republicans unusual dispensation to vote for it. He did so after conservative momentum for the measure threatened a direct repudiation of his tax purity test.
But there was a caveat. Norquist told Senators they could vote for Coburn’s proposal only if they also promised to vote for an amendment by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) that would eliminate ethanol mandates as well as the estate tax. However, the DeMint amendment might never get a vote and is almost certain to fail even if it does.
Coburn’s bid for a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority failed 40-59 after Democratic leaders whipped against it. Because some Democrats who support the proposal agreed to oppose it on procedural grounds, Democratic leaders promised they would bring up another version of the ethanol amendment next week.
Asked about Norquist’s contention that Coburn’s amendment is a tax increase, Alexander said, “This is a vote for lower food prices and lower federal debt.”
And Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who is the Senate negotiator in debt limit talks led by Vice President Joseph Biden, said he supports killing the special tax provision as well.
“I’m just looking at it from the standpoint of tax policy. We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers,” Kyl said.
The issue goes far beyond ethanol. Coburn and Norquist — who heads the advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform — are engaged in a grudge match over whether eliminating tax breaks can be part of an overall deficit reduction package.
The drama behind the vote included a visit from Norquist to brief 60 Senate staffers Tuesday, which one Senate aide said grew contentious.
The battle also appeared to set up a struggle for the heart of Republican politics between the conservative Club for Growth and Norquist’s group. The club, which is widely feared because of its ability to successfully defeat GOP incumbents in primaries, announced last week it would make Coburn’s amendment a key vote. And after Americans for Tax Reform announced the DeMint maneuver, the club put out a statement Monday in which it backed the DeMint amendment but said it supports Coburn’s amendment regardless — a clear rebuke of Norquist’s position.
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