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Boehner's Counteroffer Might Not Violate Tax Pledge

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

John Kartch, a spokesman for ATR, also declined to comment on what possible deals might violate the pledge.

“Doesn’t make any sense to get into hypotheticals,” he said in an email last week. “Right now ATR is focused on insisting that first, the negotiations over major legislation be broadcast on C-SPAN, as [President Barack] Obama promised in 2008, and second, any final legislation should be posted online for seven days so the American people can inspect it for themselves.”

Norquist has also said, in emails last year to Roll Call and an interview with National Journal, that offsetting tax relief for the AMT would not violate the pledge. And AMT relief just happens to cost roughly the same as the $800 billion that Boehner has offered — yet another way his offer could be seen as complying with the pledge.

Norquist has also written letters where he points to scores by the Joint Committee on Taxation as the arbiter of whether the pledge has been violated.

In a letter last year to “gang of six” Republican Sens. Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Norquist pointed to the JCT scores as an arbiter.

Norquist spoke of “the Taxpayer Protection Pledge you made to your constituents and the American people to oppose and vote against legislated net income tax increases.  . . .  ‘Legislated tax increases’ mean (by definition) those tax hikes scored as such by the JCT.”

Under that definition, what Boehner is actually proposing is a tax cut on the order of more than $4 trillion, rather than an $800 billion tax increase. That’s because the cost of extending tax relief for a decade will be scored as a massive tax cut by the JCT.

The JCT scores tax changes relative to current law, not current policy.

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, told Roll Call on Tuesday that Boehner’s staff has not talked to Norquist about the issue.

But he pointed to Boehner’s bottom line of preventing an increase in marginal tax rates.

“We’re not raising tax rates because we think it’s not good for jobs, not because of a pledge,” Buck said.

When pressed on MSNBC, Norquist went beyond whether a particular deal might comply technically with the pledge or not. What ultimately matters is what voters think, he said.

“The Republicans who have made that commitment to their constituents have to be able to look at their constituents and say, ‘I didn’t raise your taxes.’ That’s the key question you have to handle,” Norquist said. “At the end of the day, is it credible to say that you didn’t raise taxes or did you?  . . .  It has to pass the laugh test.”

Some other conservative activists and some Hill GOP aides believe Norquist will find a way to rule that any deal embraced by the bulk of the party complies with the pledge. Their theory is that Norquist’s perception of power comes from most Republicans toeing his line, and the minute the pledge spell is broken, Norquist’s hold will as well.

One conservative activist told Roll Call that Norquist’s pledge “has more holes in it than Swiss cheese” and predicted Norquist would find a way to back leadership.

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