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Over the past month, an unusually public quarrel has broken out between two conservative heavyweights. On one side is Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn and his quest for a grand compromise on cutting deficits. Coburn says it may be necessary to increase 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.

NPR's David Welna has their story.

DAVID WELNA: The fight between the feisty Senator Coburn and the pugnacious tax foe Grover Norquist got going last month. Initially, it was over Coburn's drive to end $5 billion a year in tax breaks for firms that blend ethanol with gasoline.

Norquist agreed with Coburn that the subsidy was wasteful. But he said the Oklahoma Republican should also cut $5 billion in taxes elsewhere so that that money would not go to the federal Treasury. Coburn refused, and each side then accused the other in public letters of essentially ignoring the interests of the American people.

Coburn has 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, this was his reply.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): Which pledge is most important, David? Is it 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?

Mr. GROVER NORQUIST (President, Americans for Tax Reform): Open it up and read it.

WELNA: That's Grover Norquist urging me to look at the so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge that Coburn signed seven years ago.

Mr. NORQUIST: 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, but it's just not true.

WELNA: Forty-one senators - all but one of them Republicans - and 236 representatives - all but two of them Republicans - have signed Norquist's no tax hikes pledge. He says he's not worried about Senator Coburn changing their minds.

Mr. NORQUIST: Mr. Coburn, 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 from that would be numbered on part of one hand.

WELNA: One of those Republicans might be Georgia's Senator Saxby Chambliss. Like Coburn, he sat on President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission and approved its final report, which called for increased revenues as well as spending cuts. Here's Chambliss on CNN earlier this month. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Chambliss was not a member of President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission.]

Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): We've got to have an increase in revenues to be able to retire this debt. 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.

WELNA: 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.

Professor JAMES THURBER (American University): This is the beginning of a crack, which may allow for a deal. Norquist will try to stop it, and it will be a major confrontation between the Republican senators and Norquist.

WELNA: 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 raising of the debt ceiling.

Coburn declined a request 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.

Mr. NORQUIST: We've just had several months of compromise where the Democrats cut spending less than the Republicans wanted them to.

WELNA: You're saying it's OK to cut spending as a compromise, but you're saying that it is not OK to raise taxes at all as part of a compromise?

Mr. NORQUIST: Compromising is moving in the right direction slowly. Raising taxes is moving in the wrong direction.

WELNA: A direction that could mean even bigger cracks in Republicans' anti-tax unity.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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