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.
Many Republicans said Tuesday that they consider items such as the ethanol provision to be a spending program dressed up as a tax break.
“I just disagree with [Norquist’s] interpretation,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), a former head of the Club for Growth.
“Look, Grover has accomplished something significant in his whole pledge, and the priority it’s been given has been a useful tool in uniting Republicans behind the principle of lower taxes. But I don’t know that there’s any Republican more committed to lower taxes and pro-growth policies than I’ve been,” Toomey said.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) also rejected Americans for Tax Reform’s position that eliminating the program amounts to a tax increase. “Grover Norquist has a lot of good ideas, but I disagree with him on this. … I agree with the Club for Growth.”
Even National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) agreed that eliminating subsidies “hardly is the same thing as raising taxes.”
Norquist also favors eliminating the ethanol credit, but only if it is offset with a tax cut somewhere else.
Ryan Ellis, tax policy director for Americans for Tax Reform, dismissed the Senators’ comments.
“The pledge is not about what Senators say but how Senators vote,” Ellis said, predicting that the Senators would have voted for both Coburn and DeMint if given the opportunity.
“They would have been just fine with the pledge,” Ellis said. “It’s about, ultimately at the end of the day, how these guys vote.”
DeMint said the tax pledge was “important” but that he offered his amendment to get out of having to choose between breaking the pledge and backing Coburn.
But Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who opposed the Coburn amendment, accused Norquist of making up a new set of rules for his pledge to give cover to Republicans who backed the Coburn amendment.
“It’s a whole new interpretation of the pledge, which I think is going to make the pledge less and less relevant,” he said.
If the position of Coburn and others holds, it could provide an opening to include revenue in a broader budget deal in return for Democrats walking the plank on spending cuts.
Democrats said the Senate vote could be a harbinger of things to come.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), one of the negotiators in the bipartisan Biden talks, applauded Coburn’s effort.
“His willingness to cut special interest tax breaks for the purpose of deficit reduction is encouraging,” he said. “Instead of cutting investments in education and infrastructure, we need to look at cutting other corporate pork like wasteful subsidies for the oil and gas industry.”