Republicans Consider Breaking Tax Vow

Congress comes back to work this week and the fiscal cliff is its top priority. Some Republicans have said they'll break a longstanding pledge not to raise taxes. Host Michel Martin talks politics with columnist Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report and The Root's political correspondent Keli Goff.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I want to thank Celeste Headlee for sitting in for me while I was away last week. Coming up, author Jonathan Kozol first made a name for himself in the 1980s when he wrote about a group of families living in the Martinique Hotel in midtown Manhattan in New York.

It was not at all the exotic paradise the name would suggest but actually, as he describes it, a decrepit drug-infested homeless shelter. Now Jonathan Kozol returns to those families more than two decades later in his latest book, "Fire in the Ashes." We'll talk with him about it in just a few minutes.

But first we wanted to catch up on some of the latest political news you might have missed while you were in Thanksgiving mode, including two notable departures in the House of Representatives and whether there's been any progress in addressing the so-called fiscal cliff. We'll talk about all this with two of our trusted political voices. Here in Washington D.C. is Mary Kate Cary.

She's a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. Now she blogs for U.S. News and World Report. And with us from our bureau in New York, Keli Goff. She is political correspondent for theroot.com. That's an online news and commentary website with a focus on African-American perspectives. Welcome back to both of you. Happy Thanksgiving.

MARY KATE CARY: Happy Thanksgiving.

KELI GOFF: Happy post-Turkey Day.

MARTIN: That's it. That's right.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So let's start with the so-called fiscal cliff. Of course, that's that package of tax increases and automatic spending cuts that will go into effect unless lawmakers and the White House agree. Deadline's getting closer. Now, you know, a number of years ago, in 1986, a number of Republicans - Mary Kate, it might be most Republicans now...

CARY: Yeah. Yeah, I think that's right.

MARTIN: ...serving, currently serving, signed something, this anti-tax pledge that was the brainchild of the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. He's the head of this group called Americans for Tax Reform. Now some Republicans are suggesting it might be time to move away from that pledge, which, as we mentioned, was first signed in 1986. Listen to Republican Peter King of New York. He was on "Meet the Press" over the weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING: A pledge you signed 20 years ago, 18 years ago, is for that Congress. For instance, if I were in Congress in 1941, I would've signed a support of declaration of war against Japan. I'm not going to attack Japan today.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, what are you hearing about this? Is Peter King's sentiment kind of gathering among Republicans on the Hill?

CARY: Yeah. The first one who came forward on the Senate side was Tom Coburn, you know, before the election. Since then we've seen Saxby Chambliss, Lindsey Graham on the same show with Peter King. Peter King's in the House. But there are a number of - probably 10 or 12 senators, is the rumor, not all of whom have come forward publicly yet.

So the sands are kind of shifting. Times are changing for the Republicans, of this crowd that we're talking about. But what's not being discussed yet is the other 170 Republicans in the House who are the ones who are going to have to vote on any sort of agreement. And that crowd may not be as flexible as some of these guys are who've come forward publicly.

But the good news is there's more than one way to skin a cat. And raising revenues does not necessarily mean raising taxes. And so there's all kinds of things they can still negotiate - a cap on capital gains, limiting deductions, a flat tax, things like that. But having said that, times are also changing for the Democrats, and what they need to remember is that Mitt Romney won the senior vote.

And Marco Rubio two years ago won a landslide in Florida promising to raise the retirement age. And so for a lot of Democrats I think changing the entitlements and reforming them is no longer the third rail in American politics like it used to be. And so that's becoming the question now, is how much entitlement reform will Republicans demand in exchange for raising revenues?

MARTIN: Keli, what do you think about this?

GOFF: Well, I mean she's correct in that Mitt Romney did win the senior vote but he didn't win as much as he needed to to carry Florida, right?

MARTIN: Right.

GOFF: And so that shows how effective the messaging was about sort of, you know, Republicans called it scare tactics about Medicare, Social Security. But it seemed to work, right? And that's why President Obama carried Florida in a way that they weren't actually anticipating - as handily as he did. And so what - look. If the Republicans end up retaking the White House in 2016, which is, you know, very much a possibility, particularly as the vocal noise gets louder about Bush 2016 - and I'm referring to Jeb Bush, because there are a lot of them, so I want to be clear - they might actually have Grover Norquist to thank. And what I mean by that is because he has really allowed them to have sort of a bad guy, right? It's sort of like - I'm going a bit extreme here but bear with me - it's sort of like how there are those who say that Martin Luther King could not have existed without Malcolm X to make him look like the sane one, the one that's, you know, it's like you can work with him or you can work with Malcolm X. Pick your choice.

That's kind of what Grover Norquist is becoming in terms of the Republican movement, where he now becomes the extremist, the one that people can sort of vilify and allow - Republicans like Jeb Bush sound extremely sane when he says I never raised taxes and I didn't sign this stupid pledge, because I don't think that my convictions should be for sale. And I think that's the kind of messaging that is certainly gaining ground. And we also have to give a couple of props here just to show how much this message is being effective, that Bill Kristol was actually the first one who kind of sounded this drum a couple weeks ago, if you remember.

CARY: Yeah, that's right.

GOFF: Right after the election.

CARY: That's right.

GOFF: Kristol was the one who said why are we protecting all these...

MARTIN: The influential conservative commentator. Yeah.

GOFF: That's right. Why are we protecting all of these rich guys? How does that really help us in the long run, that we're literally protecting - if you look at the one percent, it is .000. It's not even one percent of the population, right? So why are we protecting these guys at the expense of the rest of our party who are populists, who are socially conservative?

So look, if Grover Norquist is making a very official - an effective villain, he could end up - they could end up sort of walking over his corpse to, you know, to claim victory in 2016. Especially if Jeb Bush is the candidate.

MARTIN: Metaphorically speaking, of course. Because...

GOFF: Metaphorically speaking. I want to be very clear. I meant political corpse, guys.

MARTIN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GOFF: I don't want to cause any problems, give anyone any whacky ideas about Grover.

MARTIN: Because there are still, you know, there's a very serious sort of story about that deadly attack in Benghazi that we want to talk about in a minute, and for - just briefly. And if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're taking a look at some of the top political stories with U.S. New and World Report blogger, Mary Kate Cary, and theroot.com's political correspondent, Keli Goff.

That's who was speaking just now. I just want to talk briefly about this story that just will not go away. It's about the U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, who's been pilloried by some Republicans and conservatives for a public statement she made after the attack on Benghazi on September 11. People remember that the United States ambassador died there under some really terrible circumstances.

And some - she's being mentioned as the next secretary of state, and some Republicans are saying that they are going to block her. And Senator John McCain has been strongly opposing Susan Rice as a contender. So Mary Kate, could you just remind people of what it is about this that so engages some of these Republicans?

I think Americans are still puzzled by this. It was a very chaotic situation and I think most Americans assume she was acting on the intelligence that she was given.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: She wasn't there. So tell me why, if you could remind us, why this has become such a hot issue.

CARY: There's a bigger story beside Susan Rice here, which is that the White House line keeps changing over the last two months about what actually happened in Benghazi. And that is feeding a lot of conspiracy theories, but not even conspiracy theories. I mean there's a lot of reasonable people who think this is not being handled well by the White House.

And her potential nomination would drag that story on. There's a couple of things going on behind the scenes on her nomination. Just in the last few days a number of senior level diplomats from the Security Council talked to the Huffington Post without being named and said all kinds of things about her being rude, not diplomatic, things like that.

So she's not the most popular person over there. Second, there is a history between her and John McCain. She was the chief surrogate on the 2008 campaign for Obama, really went after him time and time again. And I don't think he's the kind of guy who forgets stuff like that.

(LAUGHTER)

CARY: And then...

GOFF: Understatement of the year...

CARY: Right. And so this sort of undercurrent about her is feeding some speculation of other people that could get nominated. Because she hasn't been nominated.

MARTIN: Sure.

CARY: John Kerry, Samantha Powers, who's on the NSC, Tom Donilon, the NSC advisor. And then the final question is, would the GOP actually filibuster her? And I kind of doubt they would.

MARTIN: Keli Goff, does this story resonate in any broader way outside of the confines of discussion programs like this?

GOFF: Sure it does, and I think that's probably thanks to John McCain. I mean, if she - when Susan Rice becomes the next secretary of State - and I anticipate she actually will - she'll actually have John McCain to thank and should send him a bouquet, because I think he really overplayed his hand in a way that he tends to do historically because he lets his temper and he lets his emotion get the better of him, which has, frankly, I think, been the tragedy and setback of his career.

I think that a lot of people - even people who don't agree with him politically - have always admired his moxie, his maverick nature, and his willing to compromise and use good sense, except for when he's mad at someone.

MARTIN: But he's not the only...

GOFF: Right?

MARTIN: ...person raising objections to...

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...to Susan Rice.

GOFF: He's certainly not, but the reason I say that she should really owe him a bouquet should she become secretary of State is his comments directed at her are what really set the president off, and I think it really made it more of a referendum between the two of them, which becomes problematic. And we know it's problematic because Senator McCain's already started to backtrack. He really softened his position this weekend, saying he's, you know, open to hearing what she has to say and he's open to hearing where she's coming from when just days before he called the woman unqualified.

Now, here's the man who gave a Sarah Palin challenging the credentials and qualifications of a high profile national public servant, and so it really made it clear that this for him was personal and that there was some personal animus that was really making his words more charged in a way that would have been credible had he just focused on the issues and said I have some serious questions which will lead me to question. And that's not what he said. He said this woman's not qualified and I'll do whatever I can to block her. I will do what I can to block her, which is just different than saying I have some serious questions I would need to hear answered before I could vote for her. That's not what he said, you know.

MARTIN: Well, something to watch. We have only about a minute and a half left and so I just wanted to ask each of you - there have been some high profile departures and some defeats of races that were closely watched. Finally, Allen West's race was decided in West Palm Beach, Florida. He's somebody who's been on the program frequently, a Tea Party favorite.

Mia Love in Utah had a high profile role at the Republican convention, also lost her race and Reverend - sorry. Forgive me. Jesse Jackson, Jr., the son of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, announced his resignation from Congress.

And Mary Kate, just as briefly as you can, I wanted...

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...to ask which of these do you think is the most noteworthy?

CARY: I would have to say Jesse Jackson, Jr., because there is a complete free-for-all, according to the Cook County Democratic Chair. All kinds of people are coming forward for that seat, including the most interesting of all, Rod Blagojevich's former lawyer. He's my guy.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: He's your guy? OK.

CARY: I'm rooting for him.

MARTIN: You're rooting for him? Keli Goff, of these races, which one is the one you think that's the most momentous that you want to tell us to sort of think about whatever it means sort of politically.

GOFF: The one I'm saddest about - Allen West, because he makes a hell of an interview. I hope I'm allowed to say that, but I've interviewed him before. You never know what he's going to say. He always goes a bit off his rocker. We love that in the media. I'm really genuinely going to miss him.

But the one to watch - I'd say Mia Love. She's not done.

CARY: Yeah.

GOFF: She's going to back. She is going to be back. I consider her...

CARY: I think that's right.

GOFF: ...a rising star and she's one that - we're not done seeing her.

CARY: I agree.

MARTIN: More to say about that race and what the dynamics there were. Interesting stuff. Keli Goff is the political correspondent for TheRoot.com. She was with us from our bureau in New York. Here with me in Washington, D.C., Mary Kate Cary, former speechwriter for President H.W. Bush, now blogger for U.S. News and World Report.

Thank you both so much.

CARY: Great to be here.

GOFF: Thanks.

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