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The pressure to reach a deal on the debt limit prompted Majority Leader Harry Reid to cancel the Senate's weeklong July 4th vacation. But Republican negotiators are resisting a deal that would include any tax increase.
Until recently, many Republicans argued that even ending a tax break for a corporation would count as a tax hike. But that argument has gradually been changing.
Two weeks ago, most Senate Republicans voted to end a tax break for ethanol. Some view that vote as a defeat for the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and the no-new-taxes pledge that he has pushed almost every Republican lawmaker to take.
NPR's David Welna has our story.
DAVID WELNA: Senate Democrats are still crowing about the day when more than two-thirds of their GOP colleagues seemed to set aside their anti-tax hike orthodoxy. Here's New York Democrat Charles Schumer speaking yesterday at the Capitol.
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Earlier this month, 34 Senate Republicans voted to get rid of ethanol subsidies. This was an outright rejection of the Grover Norquist approach to revenues.
WELNA: That Grover Norquist approach was on full display earlier this week during a Norquist appearance on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report." Host Stephen Colbert confirmed that Norquist opposed raising taxes under any circumstances. He then asked Norquist to imagine that terrorists had kidnapped their grandmothers and were holding them in an underground burrow.
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Colbert Report")
Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): They're going to release fire ants into this burrow who'll bite our grandmothers to death.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLBERT: Their only demand is that we increase the marginal tax rate on the top two percent of Americans...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. COLBERT: And we will release them. Do we increase the tax rate, or do we let our grandmothers die by ant bite?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GROVER NORQUIST (Americans for Tax Reform): I think we console ourselves with the fact that we have pictures.
WELNA: Norquist and the conservative advocacy group he heads, Americans for Tax Reform, have gotten all but 13 Republican members of Congress to sign a pledge vowing never to raise taxes. That pledge, he explains in an interview at his Washington, D.C. office, is simple.
Mr. NORQUIST: It's been out for 25 years now. People know exactly what it is. It's very clear. If you want to run as somebody who's not going to raise taxes, you take the pledge. If you want the door open to tax increases, you refuse to take the pledge and say, I raise taxes when I damn well feel like it, you stupid voters.
WELNA: Norquist's clout on Capitol Hill is legendary. But Claremont McKenna College congressional expert Jack Pitney says it's also consistent with GOP thinking.
Mr. JACK PITNEY (Claremont McKenna College): Would Republican positions on taxes be very different if he weren't around? Probably not. You'd probably still get the great majority of Republicans opposing taxes.
WELNA: All this year, Norquist has feuded publicly with Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn. Norquist insists Coburn's drive for a Senate repeal of a $6 billion annual tax break for ethanol was really a bid to raise taxes. Coburn says it was about ending a bad policy.
Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): So it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what anybody else's definition of that is. Stupidity is stupidity.
WELNA: Norquist says he's just tried to hold the Oklahoma Republican to his pledge not to raise taxes.
Mr. NORQUIST: Coburn would like to make this some sort of fight with me, but that's silly. If his commitment was to the people of Oklahoma, he wouldn't vote for a tax increase. He's basically told them, I lied.
WELNA: And by implication, so did the 30 other Republicans who voted to end the ethanol tax break and who also signed the pledge.
Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): I don't sign pledges.
WELNA: Maine's Susan Collins is one of the seven Senate Republicans who have not signed Norquist's tax pledge.
Sen. COLLINS: I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the Constitution, and that's it.
WELNA: She says her vote to end the ethanol subsidy could be the start of a trend.
Sen. COLLINS: There may be other loopholes in the tax laws or incentives that are no longer needed or too expensive, simply not affordable, that we should look, take a look at.
WELNA: Some Republicans who did sign Norquist's pledge are also open to taking aim at more tax loopholes, including John Cornyn of Texas.
Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): You know, as Ronald Reagan said, the closest thing to eternal life on Earth is a temporary government program. And that's certainly true about some of these special tax provisions that are embedded throughout the tax code, that we need to take a look at all of those.
WELNA: Those hammering out a deficit-reduction package will likely be taking a close look as well.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.