Republicans are feuding over whether to abandon the party’s long-held opposition to higher taxes in pursuit of a deficit-cutting deal with Democrats.
The rift in the Republican ranks has surfaced in a bitter back-and-forth between two heroes of the conservative movement: Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, doctor who has been working with a bipartisan group of senators on a compromise to reduce government borrowing, and Grover Norquist, author of the no-tax-increase pledge that has become a rite of passage for GOP candidates.
At stake is a pillar of Republican orthodoxy that has for decades united every wing of the party in a quest to shrink government’s reach.
As the battle over the federal deficit escalates in Washington, the two men are sparring over Coburn’s seemingly narrow proposal to eliminate a $5 billion annual tax break awarded to companies that blend ethanol into gasoline. But both sides say this cuts to the core of a quandary for the GOP: Will the cause of trimming deficits run aground on the conservative principle that the government must not increase the amount of money it takes in through taxes?
Coburn has been the most visible Republican to challenge Norquist, perhaps the country’s most influential anti-tax advocate, but other Republicans have been willing to discuss a budget deal that would include raising more money through taxes, along with making deep spending cuts, to help reduce the deficit.
These include stalwart conservatives such as Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). And on the ethanol issue, Coburn has drawn support from such conservative-movement fixtures as the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal editorial board.
And even some House leaders, including Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), have left the door open to negotiation.
For anti-tax purists, including many in the Republican Party, eliminating the ethanol break is unacceptable — measures that roll back corporate subsidies, individual deductions or loopholes of any sort without comparable tax cuts elsewhere are considered tax increases.
The tensions between Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and Coburn’s office have intensified, with each side sending the other terse, accusatory letters claiming to be the true conservatives. Coburn charges that the tax pledge, as interpreted by Norquist, is inflexible, and Coburn’s spokesman now labels Norquist the “chief cleric of sharia tax law.”
“If we don’t do something, what we’ve done is put the country at risk,” Coburn said in an interview. “I agree we ought to cut spending, but will we ever get the spending cut to the level that we need to without some type of compromise?”