Conservative Heavyweights Trade Jabs Over Taxes

Grover Norquist (left), of the anti-tax lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK, right) have been in an unusually public spat. Coburn, who seven years ago signed Norquist's so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge, now says a solution to the deficit could involve an increase in tax revenues.

hide captionGrover Norquist (left), of the anti-tax lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK, right) have been in an unusually public spat. Coburn, who seven years ago signed Norquist's so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge, now says a solution to the deficit could involve an increase in tax revenues.

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images (Norquist photo); Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images (Coburn photo)

Over the past month, a quarrel has broken out in public between two conservative heavyweights in Washington.

On one side is Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who's looking for a grand compromise to bring down annual deficits. He says the solution may involve an increase in tax revenues.

On the other side is anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, who says Coburn is breaking a long-standing pledge not to raise taxes.

The 'Taxpayer Protection Pledge'

The fight between the feisty Coburn and the pugnacious Norquist got going last month. Initially, it was over Coburn's drive to end $5 billion a year in tax breaks for companies that blend ethanol with gasoline. Norquist agreed with Coburn that the subsidy was wasteful. But he said Coburn should also cut $5 billion in taxes elsewhere so that money would not go to the Treasury.

Coburn refused, and each side then accused the other in public letters of essentially ignoring the interests of the American people.

Coburn has, indeed, signed a pledge sponsored by Norquist's anti-tax lobbying group, Americans for Tax Reform, not to raise taxes. When NBC's David Gregory pointed that out to Coburn on Sunday, the senator asked: "Which pledge is most important, David: The pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States? Or a pledge from a special interest group who claims to speak for all of American conservatives, when in fact they really don't?"

The next day, Norquist pointed to the so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge that Coburn signed seven years ago.

"Open it up and read it," Norquist said. "His commitment in writing is to the people of Oklahoma and the American people. So, nice try to argue that he's not made a commitment to the people of Oklahoma, which is not true."

All told, 41 senators (all are Republicans except for one) and 236 representatives (all Republicans except for two) have signed Norquist's pledge promising no tax hikes. Norquist says he's not worried about Coburn changing their minds.

"If he thinks people are going to support a massive tax increase — I think if you would write down the size of that tax increase, the number of Republican supporters for that would be numbered on part of one hand," he says.

A Solution For Deficits?

One of those Republicans might be Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss. "We've got to have an increase in revenues to be able to retire this debt," Chambliss said on CNN earlier this month. "Now, if we don't want to pay the debt back, then we could just not worry about the revenues. But the fact is we've got a $14 trillion debt staring us in the face, and revenues has to be on the table if we're serious about attacking that debt."

American University congressional expert James Thurber says it's significant that both Chambliss and Coburn see increased revenues as part of the solution to chronic deficits.

"This is the beginning of a crack, which may allow for a deal," Thurber says. "Norquist will try to stop it, and it will be a major confrontation between the Republican senators and Norquist."

A Search For Compromise

Both Coburn and Chambliss are also in the so-called Gang of Six, the bipartisan group of senators searching for a grand deal to pave the way for a budget agreement and raise the debt ceiling.

Coburn declined to comment for this report. But he did say on NBC that he and his colleagues were trying to find a compromise to save the country.

Norquist, for his part, says there's already been plenty of compromise. "We've just had several months of compromise where the Democrats cut spending less than the Republicans wanted them to," Norquist said.

When asked to confirm that cutting spending was fine as part of a compromise, but raising taxes was not, he says, "Compromising is moving in the right direction slowly. Raising taxes is moving in the wrong direction."

It's a direction that could mean even bigger cracks in Republicans' anti-tax unity.

Correction April 27, 2011

The audio and a previous Web version of this story incorrectly said that Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss was a member of President Obama's bipartisan commission and had approved its final report. Chambliss was not a member of that commission.

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