A senior member of the U.S. House GOP leadership on Monday declined to endorse an anti-tax-hike pledge he and most other congressional Republicans have taken, a key development as Washington looks to avoid fiscal calamity and deep defense cuts.
A major sticking point in congressional-White House talks about reaching a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction deal is expected to be whether enough Republicans will agree to a level of new federal revenues that President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats will support.
At issue is a pledge Republicans have taken — created by Americans for Tax Reform head Grover Norquist — stating they would never support federal tax hikes.
Several senior congressional Republicans over the long Thanksgiving weekend said they would buck the Norquist pledge if it meant getting a deal and avoiding a “fiscal cliff,” which economists say would be created by expiring tax cuts and by twin $500 billion cuts to planned federal defense and domestic spending that will take effect if no deal is in place by Jan. 2.
GOP Sens. Saxby Chambliss, Ga., Lindsey Graham, S.C., Bob Corker, Tenn., and Rep. Peter King of New York all signaled a deal is more important in this instance than a strict allegiance to the pledge.
During a Nov. 26 television interview, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., had an opportunity to state his plans to vote against any deal that raises new revenues but he opted to not do so.
“When I go to the constituents, it’s not about that pledge,” said Cantor, the House majority leader who is seen as a leader of the conservative wing of the House GOP ranks. “It’s about trying to solve problems.”
Cantor noted that earlier this month, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told Obama that Republicans in his chamber are open to including new revenues in a fiscal package. “That’s a big move,” Cantor said.
It remains unclear just what mechanisms for raising those revenues House Republicans will support, however.
“We were elected to fix problems,” Cantor said. “Even if you raise ... taxes, it doesn’t fix your problem.”
Norquist has yet to respond to Cantor’s comments, or others made on the Sunday morning political talk shows, but he did issue a lengthy statement Nov. 23 following Chambliss’ comments to a Georgia television station late last week.
Norquist noted in that statement he has endorsed just a single plan “that brings the budget [into] balance and pays down the debt without any tax hikes” — the 2013 House GOP spending plan written by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee.
“Sen. Chambliss voted for the Ryan plan,” Norquist said. “I miss his point in trying to attack me.”
The tax talk comes as Congress returns for a five-week lame-duck session, and will put other key Republicans in the spotlight as talks about a massive federal deficit-reduction plan begin in earnest.
In addition to the fiscal cliff, Pentagon officials and conservative lawmakers say the defense cuts would create a “hollow force,” weaken the U.S. defense industrial base and hinder national security.
The emerging distance between congressional Republicans and Norquist is the latest evidence that Republicans want to cut a deal. Some political pundits warn if congressional Republicans stand firm on the Norquist pledge and drive the nation over the fiscal cliff, voters could punish the party in the 2014 midterm elections.
As lawmakers get to work in the lame-duck session, and a new Congress prepares to begin work in January, a major issue will be whether Republican lawmakers will accept enough revenues to appease enough Democrats and Obama. That means the Norquist pledge will be front-and-center for months to come.