Saxby Chambliss: One more Republican breaks ranks over anti-tax pledge

Republicans are grappling with growing rifts in their ranks over a no-new-tax pledge that has been rock solid for more than 20 years. That quiet debate within the GOP could determine how Congress deals with its looming 'fiscal cliff.'

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
President Obama, accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, speaks to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House as he hosts a Nov. 16 meeting of the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress to discuss the deficit and economy in Washington.

The sharpest struggle in the lame-duck session of Congress, which picks up again on Monday, may well be within GOP ranks, as Republicans grapple with whether to relax a no-new-tax pledge that has been fixed party orthodoxy for nearly a generation.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia is the latest lawmaker to formally renege on the pledge. In a television interview on Wednesday, he said that he's no longer supporting the pledge because "times have changed significantly, and I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge."

Such breaks in GOP ranks could become decisive as GOP leaders negotiate with Democrats and the White House over how to resolve the "fiscal cliff," or some $600 billion in mandatory spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect in 2013.

Breaking a no-new-tax pledge can be toxic at the polls. President George H.W. Bush lost his bid for a second term after bypassing his 1988 "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge in his budget agreement with a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1990. Since then, most GOP members of Congress and even a few Democrats have signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge by Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), an antitax group.

After Senator Chambliss's announcement, ATR president Grover Norquist shot back in a statement on Friday: "Raising taxes on the people of Georgia to pay for Obama's reckless spending is not the right thing to do for America or Georgia."

"We have a problem because Washington spends too much, not because Sen. Chambliss has failed so far to raise taxes on the hard-working men and women of Georgia," he added.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska broke his no-new-tax pledge and soon after announced his retirement from the Senate in 2012. "[Senator Nelson] withdrew because polling showed he could not win a general election having both lied to his state and raised their taxes," Mr. Norquist said in Friday's statement.

Heading into the 2012 elections, 279 incumbent lawmakers in Congress had signed the pledge, up from 208 in 2010, according to the ATR website.  In addition, 286 challengers had taken the pledge, up from 241 in 2010. (The ATR site does not expunge the names of those who have since repudiated the pledge.)

But critics say that the pledge's influence is waning. Freshman Rep. Scott Rigell (R) of Virginia, who signed the pledge when he first ran for office in 2010, campaigned against the pledge in 2012 in a state with a strong tea party presence, yet won back his seat with 54 percent of the vote.

Nine-term Rep. Steven LaTourette (R) of Ohio, one of the first House Republicans to publicly repudiate the pledge, notes that when he first signed on in May 1994, the national debt was nearing $4.7 trillion. Now, the nation is on track to owe $20 trillion. "To be beholden to some pledge when the future of the country is at stake is kind of silly," he told the Monitor in November 2011. (Mr. LaTourette also declined to run for reelection in 2012, but appeared to be in no danger of losing his seat.)

In addition to Chambliss, Sens. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, John McCain (R) of Arizona, Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, Mike Crapo (R) of Idaho, and Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee have publicly repudiated elements of the pledge, especially its call to oppose eliminating tax breaks, unless offset by tax cuts elsewhere. Those six dissenters may mean that Republicans no longer have the votes to sustain a filibuster of any deal that includes tax hikes.

After a White House meeting Nov. 16, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said: "We're prepared to put revenue on the table, provided we fix the real problem," that is: a $16 trillion national debt and unsustainable entitlement spending. House Speaker John Boehner says that he is open to revenue as part of a solution to the fiscal cliff, but not to raising tax rates on "job creators."

President Obama, claiming a mandate on tax hikes for the wealthiest Americans in the 2012 vote, says he won't budge on the need to raise taxes on the richest Americans, that is, individuals with incomes over $200,000 or families with incomes over $250,000.

Norquist says that, in the end, Republicans won't blink either. "No one is caving," he told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published on Saturday. "For 20 years Democrats have tried over and over to trick Republicans into breaking the pledge," he added. "It hasn't happened."

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