Norquist pledge: Are GOP tax rebels start of a trend or just talk?

Norquist pledge, which calls for lawmakers to oppose new taxes, has another defector: Republican Sen. Bob Corker. But key players in 'fiscal cliff' negotiations have yet to join ranks of such GOP rebels.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, shown heading into a Nov. 13 hearing on Capitol Hill, is the latest Republican to publicly disavow the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which has been party orthodoxy for the past 20 years.

In recent days some big-name congressional Republicans have said they won’t be bound by past pledges to not raise taxes. They’re rejecting this aspect of GOP orthodoxy to help strike a deal on the nation’s “fiscal cliff” problem, they say.

The latest lawmaker to bolt the longtime antitax party line is Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, who said on Monday he’d be flexible about raising tax rates and capping income-tax deductions in return for reform of America’s huge entitlement spending programs.

Senator Corker, like virtually all other US GOP officeholders, once vowed to oppose and vote against all tax increases by signing the Taxpayer Protection Pledge of antitax activist Grover Norquist. But on "CBS This Morning," he told host Charlie Rose he wouldn’t let this past position stand in the way of solving today’s fiscal problems.

“I’m not obligated on the pledge ... the only thing I’m honoring is the oath that I take when I’m sworn in this January,” said Corker.

Corker thus joins Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Republican Rep. Peter King of New York in saying that adherence to the Norquist pledge is outdated. Are they the harbinger of a mass defection that would make it much easier for party leaders to strike a deal with the White House?

Well, anything’s possible in politics. But we don’t see this as a game-changing development, at least not yet.

First, the folks we’re talking about here aren’t important players in terms of fiscal cliff negotiations. Remember, the Senate is controlled by Democrats, so what GOP senators think is much less important than what top House Republicans think. True, Representative King is a committee chairman, but it’s the Homeland Security Committee, and he’ll have to step down in the next Congress due to party chairmanship limits. (House Speaker John Boehner has spoken vaguely of accepting revenue increases, but hasn’t detailed what that means.)

Second, these revelations aren’t exactly new. The lawmakers involved have either endorsed tax increases in the past as part of a deficit deal (Chambliss, Corker), often floated initiatives of one kind or another, only to back down (Graham), or are moderate Republicans in a district surrounded by Democratic areas (King), writes David Dayen Monday on the left-leaning Firedoglake blog.

“There’s no news here at all, but instead a fake Washington drama based on personality,” writes Mr. Dayen.

Third, the counterattack from the right has already begun. Grover Norquist himself on CNN’s "Starting Point" on Monday played down the issue, saying it’s nothing but a few lawmakers “discussing impure thoughts on national television." Some conservative activists have been more pointed, saying that all those involved risk facing primary challenges from the right if they maintain such an attitude.

The antitax pledge isn’t about taxes per se; it’s about keeping the size of the government as small as possible, writes Daniel Horowitz Monday at the conservative RedState blog.

“On this core issue, Republicans like Chambliss and Graham side with Democrats. We side with the Constitution,” writes Mr. Horowitz.

One final thought: If individual GOP lawmakers, such as those mentioned above, truly believe the antitax pledge shouldn’t prevent a fiscal cliff solution, should they just keep quiet about it, pending negotiations?

That’s because Speaker Boehner faces tough talks with the White House. In terms of game theory, Boehner might benefit from administration uncertainty as to where the rank-and-file GOP stands.

Theoretically, President Obama might give in a bit more if the administration comes to believe that Republican backbenchers would revolt at revenue increases.

“Boehner may ironically (but completely classically from a game theoretic vantage point) benefit from being able to portray himself (accurately or not) as not being able to corral his own troops. ‘Sir, I told them gruel was sufficient to survive the night, but they simply insisted they’d die without gruyere,’ ” writes John Patty, an associate professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, on his blog, The Math of Politics.

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