Grover Norquist Hedges His Pledge, Gives GOP an Opening on Tax Increases

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My dictionary defines “pledge” as a “solemn binding promise to do, give or refrain from doing something.” That same dictionary defines “position” as “a point of view or attitude on a certain question.” The difference is huge: One can change a position with minimal consequence to one’s integrity. But one violates a pledge.

Grover Norquist’s taxpayer protection pledge, which binds most Republican elected officials, is remarkably simple. The signer pledges to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses.” Now what if the signer agrees to a deal that makes it more likely for a cut in those marginal rates to expire. Does that violate the pledge? “Not continuing a tax cut is not technically a tax increase,” Norquist told the Washington Post editorial board, adding that “we wouldn’t hold” such an action as a violation of the pledge.

This is a big deal, since it says the grand bargain that President Obama had been pushing with House Republicans may not violate the pledge.

Under the plan, which has been shelved for now, Obama would agree to a lot of spending cuts, including entitlement cuts, in exchange for a decoupling that would extend the middle class tax cuts enacted by President Bush in 2001, but not the tax cuts on the highest income levels. In practice, this would probably force the high-end tax cuts to expire, since it would be difficult to garner the votes in the Senate to extend tax breaks for the wealthy. It is a compromise designed as face-saving for the Republicans, who would never have to vote for tax increases even as taxes went up.

Grover’s admission that such a course would not violate the pledge is a big deal, and he is all over the place today trying to walk it back. But if you read his clarifications closely, he is not denying what he told the Washington Post. He is simply adding another fact: While such a course would not violate the pledge, he says, it would violate the position of Americans of Tax Reform. Here is Norquist today on MSNBC:

There are certain things you can do technically and not violate the pledge, but that the general public would clearly understand as a tax increase. So I can be clear: Americans for Tax Reform would oppose any effort to weaken, reduce, or not continue the 2001, 2003 Bush tax cuts.

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer rushed to the Senate floor today to announce that Norquist was giving Republicans a “hall pass” to strike a compromise that would involve an expiration of part of the Bush tax cuts by inaction. That is not so much of an overstatement. Republicans can no longer hide behind the prospect of violating their pledge. Now it is a question of whether they are willing to change their position.