Promise on Taxes Sparks GOP Rift

By Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal - March 21, 2011

Two decades after President George H.W. Bush abandoned his "read my lips" promise, some Republicans are chafing at their party's stand against new taxes.

A few prominent GOP lawmakers believe they will have to raise some tax revenue if they are to bring Democrats along on a bipartisan compromise to address the U.S.'s long-term fiscal problems. Many Democrats want higher taxes to cover at least part of future budget gaps. That has led to clashes between Republican lawmakers and a Washington advocacy group, Americans for Tax Reform, the self-appointed keeper of the party's anti-tax flame.

Grover Norquist, the group's president, said he has "sent up a flare" against placing trust in Democrats, given how bipartisan agreements, including the one struck by then-President Bush in 1990, eventually unraveled. Those tax increases took effect as scheduled, but Democrats didn't always deliver on promised spending cuts, Mr. Norquist said.

Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), one lawmaker targeted by Mr. Norquist's group, is having none of it. "These fights ... help raise money for interest groups, but they don't do anything for solving problems," he said.

It's a delicate subject for Republicans as they seek agreement with Democrats on reducing deficits while remaining true to their small-government principles.

Other congressional Republicans stand by party orthodoxy. Raising taxes will only deflect needed spending cuts, said GOP senators including Charles Grassley of Iowa and John Barrasso of Wyoming. "If you send more money to Washington, all they're going to do is spend it," Mr. Barrasso said.

Democrats respond by blaming Republicans for the budget mess. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, cited GOP tax cuts as a cause of the deficit. "You only get [a budget agreement] where everyone comes to the table at the same time," he said.

The friction over taxes escalated late last year when Mr. Coburn and two other Republican senators said they would support the recommendations of a blue-ribbon deficit-reduction commission for deep spending cuts coupled with a tax overhaul. The plan would significantly lower tax rates but raise tax revenue by reducing or eliminating a number of big tax breaks, such as the mortgage-interest deduction. Under such a plan, many people would see a tax increase.

Conservatives, including top House Republicans, opposed the plan because of its tax provision. Mr. Coburn and two GOP allies saw it as a starting point for negotiations.

The day before the final vote on the deficit-reduction plan, a senior staffer at Americans for Tax Reform wrote on Twitter that the three lawmakers had misled voters about their past support for the no-new-taxes pledge that the advocacy group encourages candidates to sign. One of the staffer's messages said the GOP senators "lied about taxes to get elected."

As budget talks progressed this year, Mr. Norquist warned the senators in a letter that agreeing to a similar deal "would most likely be a violation" of the Americans for Tax Reform pledge. Mr. Coburn and his allies said they would support a tax overhaul only if it raised revenue by accelerating economic growth.

In recent comments, Mr. Coburn upped the ante, attacking Americans for Tax Reform's bona fides as a tax-and-budget watchdog. Mr. Coburn assailed the group's past support for a widely criticized tax credit for producers of ethanol, an alternative motor fuel, dismissing the measure as "corporate welfare."

In an interview, the Oklahoma senator said conservatives who promote the GOP's no-new-taxes orthodoxy have been "disingenuous" by simultaneously pushing specific tax breaks and other measures that have added to deficits. Mr. Norquist said his group opposed revoking the ethanol measure unless it was offset with another tax break, because that would constitute a net tax increase. He said that is the purpose of the group's pledge, which dates from the mid-1980s.

"The [no-new-taxes] pledge does not protect any deduction or credit, period," Mr. Norquist added.

At a recent conference in Washington, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a possible 2012 presidential candidate, joined the fray, warning against allowing dogma to get in the way of a budget deal. "Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers," Mr. Daniels said.

Write to John D. McKinnon at

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