Georgia House Republicans not backing off tax pledge

Seven of the state’s eight Republicans in the House have signed a pledge never to vote for an increase in the overall federal tax burden, and the eighth — Lawrenceville’s Rob Woodall — was effusive in his praise of the pledge and its purveyor, Washington activist/lobbyist/media star Grover Norquist.

But one Georgia Republican has taken a different stance. Sen. Saxby Chambliss signed the pledge in his first run for the U.S. House in 1994 and has never violated it. But he says an increase in tax revenue must be included in a long-term plan to help the nation conquer the deficit.

He took Norquist on directly in an interview with a Macon television station last week. “I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge,” Chambliss said. “If we do it his way then we’ll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that.”

Taxes are a major component of the ongoing negotiations ahead of year’s end, when a grab-bag of federal policy expires and could thrust the economy into a new recession, an event known as the fiscal cliff. The George W. Bush-era tax cuts are among the expiring provisions. President Barack Obama campaigned on allowing tax rates to go up for families making more than $250,000 per year. Republicans are staunchly against any rate increase, and most have pledged not to increase revenue through getting rid of deductions either.

Chambliss earned swift support from neighboring Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bob Corker of Tennessee, who said under the right circumstances they could vote to increase government receipts through eliminating deductions.

Norquist has championed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, signed by hundreds of legislators and candidates, since 1986, and become known as a Washington operator with considerable clout.

“The problem is not that we have a Grover Norquist,” said Woodall. “The problem is we don’t have two Grover Norquists. If we had a second Grover Norquist who was enforcing a no-new-spending pledge, we would be in good shape.”

Woodall said he didn’t sign because he has a blanket no-pledge policy and he also was concerned that his dream of a national sales tax to replace the income tax would violate the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. But Woodall insisted he would never vote for a tax increase.

Georgia’s Republicans said the pledge was not about Norquist so much as about a deeply held belief that raising taxes is bad for the economy under any circumstance. And they expressed frustration at what they see as Obama’s obsession with taxes rather than cutting spending.

“We need the president to come to the table,” said Athens Rep. Paul Broun. “He’s been very recalcitrant in dealing with these issues. He’s going around the country touting that we’ve got to raise taxes basically on family-owned businesses, basically is what he’s promoting. He’s put nothing else on the table.”

Added Tifton Rep. Austin Scott, “He hasn’t given us anything that is a long-term solution.”

Many in Washington view the cliff as an opportunity for a major deal to bring down deficits. Chambliss, who has spent two years trying to engineer a deal with colleagues from both parties, says it must include significant spending cuts, reforms to entitlements such as Medicare, and an increase in federal tax revenue by capping or eliminating deductions.

Norquist called Chambliss on Monday, and though Chambliss said in an interview with the AJC that they remain friends, their disagreement is unchanged on what constitutes a tax hike. Chambliss said he would never vote to raise income tax rates, but reducing deductions or other “tax expenditures” should be an option.

“We’re going to continue to dialogue with him, and if we have issues we’ll work through them,” Chambliss said. “We had a very good conversation.”

Norquist projected confidence in many interviews he conducted this week that the “impure thoughts” of some Republicans would be nothing more.

“I don’t want to be too rough on a Saxby Chambliss,” Norquist said Wednesday at an event sponsored by the Washington news outlet Politico. “He’s never voted for a tax increase. He just talked about maybe someday doing that.”

Georgia’s House Republicans were not rough on Chambliss either, even though a couple of them are rumored as possible Senate primary challengers in 2014. And while they maintained their openness to potential dealmaking, the group — which includes some of the most conservative members of Congress — indicated no willingness to break the pledge.

“You could do [tax reform] in a revenue-neutral way that I know doesn’t violate the pledge,” said Roswell Rep. Tom Price, who serves on the Ways and Means Committee and might run against Chambliss in a primary. “It’s been part of our budget for the last two years to close the loopholes and limit the deductions and limit the credits so that we can get to lower rates for everybody and broadening the base for taxes. That’s a principled solution.”

Savannah Republican Jack Kingston, a 10-term veteran, said he is wary of any deal to raise taxes because promised spending cuts do not typically follow. “I have no intention of breaking a pledge on no taxes because I have never seen the results of breaking such pledges,” he said.

Added Marietta’s Phil Gingrey: “I don’t plan to back away from the pledge because I think it’s sound fiscal policy. We are taxed enough already.”

The pledge was a Ronald Reagan-endorsed idea first deployed in the 1986 midterm elections, around the time when Congress last passed major tax reform. Leading the group Americans for Tax Reform, the acerbic Norquist became known as one of the savviest and most powerful operators in Washington. He leads a weekly meeting of influential conservatives and often is asked to give his imprimatur to complicated bills, judging whether or not they would constitute a tax hike.

In public he has consistently downplayed his own power, rejecting the language of foes like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who last year said Republicans are “led like puppets by Grover Norquist.”

Norquist and his pledge-signers say it is not about him. “I didn’t have to study signing the pledge because I wasn’t going to raise taxes whether there was a pledge or not,” said Coweta County Rep. Lynn Westmoreland.

And despite occasional unkind words by legislators and the press, Norquist said he does not fear that the pledge’s power is waning. He noted that the same senators had similar thoughts last year during and after the debate over raising the federal debt ceiling. In fact, Chambliss said in June 2011: “Grover Norquist has no credibility, so I don’t respond to him.”

Still, no Republicans voted for a tax increase last year. They have not in some time. And even if the Senate gets wobbly in these negotiations, a critical mass of House Republicans has yet to form to challenge Norquist— or, rather, his idea. And Norquist does not expect them to anytime soon.

“I have job security that most people don’t have,” he said. “At least the marijuana-legalization people could end up out of a job in a couple years if they win. But we’re always going to feel that our taxes are too high. We had a revolution in this country when the folks in the colonies were paying between 1 and 2 percent in GDP in taxes … Now that the government is taking a third of our stuff, the idea that people want higher taxes or will put up with higher taxes doesn’t show up.”

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