Can Republicans agree to more tax revenue without violating Grover Norquist's no-tax-hike pledge? The surprising answer: Maybe.
With the help of some budget magic, last week's offer by Senate Republicans on the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to raise taxes by $250 billion as part of a $1.2 trillion deficit reduction package might not be a technical violation of Norquist's pledge — even if it goes against its spirit.
The key is that Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform pledge appears to leave room for politicians to say they are complying with it even if they are allowing taxes to go up. And with the Bush tax cuts set to expire in 2013, that's potentially a big loophole.
So the Republican plan would be a small net tax increase if existing tax rates continue, but it would score as a giant tax cut — exceeding $3 trillion over the next decade — relative to letting the Bush tax cuts expire. Even President Barack Obama's own budget — which would extend most of the Bush tax cuts except those for the wealthy — scores as a big tax cut on a current-law basis.
Norquist and ATR are refusing to say whether the GOP offer — crafted in large part by super committee member Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) — complies with the pledge.
"The Toomey plan is not written down, not in legislative language and not scored, so ATR doesn't have a response to this negotiation proposal other than to notice that the Dems have announced they won't support Toomey, so that is a dead letter," ATR spokesman John Kartch said.
Pressed, Kartch said the hypothetical proposal "would appear to be a violation of the pledge," and Norquist himself told National Review Online last week that the proposal probably doesn't comply with it. Kartch said separately that continuing the Bush tax rates should not count as a tax cut.
"Some tax cuts and hikes are temporary because their proponents argued for them as temporary," Kartch noted.
The "pledge has always been based on current policy," he added.
Under that logic, voting against President Barack Obama's proposal to extend and expand this year's temporary payroll tax cut would appear to adhere to the pledge. But extending some but not all of the Bush tax cuts would violate the pledge.
Norquist surprised some earlier this year when he told the Washington Post editorial board that allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire would not violate the pledge. After the Post published his comments, he issued a statement saying that allowing the tax cuts to expire would indeed be a tax increase. But that statement did not say whether doing so would violate the pledge.