This article has been updated.
WASHINGTON -- Ending the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy would not be a tax hike, according to Grover Norquist, the man behind a pledge against increasing taxes. That assessment gives the Republican Party breathing room to let some tax breaks expire without violating a pledge to Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.
"Not continuing a tax cut is not technically a tax increase," Norquist told the Washington Post editorial board. "We wouldn't hold it" as violating the pledge, he said.
The Republican Party has long been beholden to Americans for Tax Reform, which is headed by Norquist. The "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," which nearly all Republican members of Congress have signed, says signatories will never vote to raise taxes. According to Norquist, the pledge has also ruled out voting to end certain tax breaks and subsidies without using the resulting money to lower rates elsewhere.
But ending the Bush-era tax cuts, which were extended last December by President Barack Obama, could now offer a way to raise revenue for a debt limit deal -- without Republicans breaking their pledge against voting to raise taxes.
Norquist said he still opposes ending the Bush tax cuts, but his shift on whether they would be interpreted as a violation of the pledge gives more leeway in negotiations for raising the debt limit.
A deal on raising the debt ceiling has been delayed by Republicans' hard-line drive for spending cuts, with many vowing they will not allow for tax increases as part of a final deal.
Yet some Republicans have shown a recent willingness to amend tax policy despite their pledge, with 34 Senate Republicans voting in June to end ethanol subsidies in an amendment proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). At the time, Norquist rebuked Coburn for that amendment, saying the senator "lied his way into office" and was breaking the pledge.
Coburn, though, was adamant that ending the ethanol subsidy -- a vote that ultimately failed -- would be good policy, saying Norquist has less influence than people think.
"The fact is it's not a good position to put yourself in when you say, 'Here's a tax expenditure that nobody needs, and yet we have to give somebody else a tax cut to take away this,'" he told reporters at the time.
UPDATE: 11:30 a.m. -- Appearing on MSNBC hours after the editorial appeared, Norquist claimed that the Washington Post had selectively quoted him.
"I think they need to follow the rest of the conversation," he said. "Otherwise it wouldn't pass the laugh test to go to the American people and tell them you just allowed $4 trillion dollars in higher taxes by allowing the 2001-2003 lower rates to lapse and tell people that's not a tax increase."
"It clearly would be a dramatic increase in taxes," he added. "How you get into [Congressional Budget Offce] scoring and technicalities is a different issue, in terms of taxes lapsing."
Democrats, Norquist said, were wrong to assume that he had opened to door to a debt ceiling compromise that would include revenues derived from letting the tax cuts expire.
"The answer is the people have made this commitment not to raise taxes, have made it clear they're not raising taxes, and [Speaker] Boehner and the other Republicans have said that independent of the pledge, there's certain things you could technically do and not violate the pledge, but the general public would clearly understand is a tax increase."
Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist added, "would oppose any effort to weaken reduce or not continue the 2011 Bush tax cuts."
Whether Norquist appeared on MSNBC to offer a clarification or a walk back, his comments came a touch too late. White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer tweeted Thursday morning:
"Norquist's comments in the @washingtonpost are v. signifigant in the deficit talks. Are most House GOPers to the right of Grover on taxes?"
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), meanwhile, was set to give remarks on the Senate floor urging House Republicans to "heed" the advice from Norquist, "who today gave his permission for Republicans to let millionaire tax breaks expire without violating his anti-tax pledge," Schumer said.
UPDATE: 11:40 a.m. -- House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) downplayed Norquist's remarks in a press conference Thursday, saying he has never voted for tax increases and does not intend to do so in the future.
"I believe that would be raising taxes," he said of ending the Bush-era tax cuts.
UPDATE: 11:55 a.m. -- Americans for Tax Reform issued a statement Thursday clarifying the group's opposition to tax changes as part of a debt ceiling deal:
ATR opposes all tax increases on the American people. Any failure to extend or make permanent the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, in whole or in part, would clearly increase taxes on the American people. In addition, the failure to extend the AMT patch would increase taxes. The outlines of the plans are deliberately hazy, but it appears that both Obama’s Simpson-Bowles commission proposal and the Gang-of-Six proposal dramatically increase taxes on the American people. [Emphasis theirs.]
It is a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge to trade temporary tax reductions for permanent tax hikes.
The present conversations in Washington should focus totally and exclusively on reducing government overspending. President Barack Obama has increased the annual federal budget by almost $1 trillion dollars. ATR has not altered either its policy positions or opposition to all tax increases whatsoever in any debt negotiations.
Tax reform that reduces tax rates and broadens the tax base on a revenue neutral basis should be done separately and not in a rush under duress from parties hostile to the interests of taxpayers.
UPDATE: 2:10 p.m. -- The Washington Post has responded to Norquist's and ATR's walk-backs on his comments by posting the audio of his remarks to their website.
"So that there's no question about what was said during Tuesday's meeting, here's the relevant audio of the interchange between Norquist and editorial board member Ruth Marcus," the post reads.
While Norquist appears to offer lawmakers who have signed the no-tax pledge an out, "that's not gonna get these guys off the hook," he says on the tape. "The House and Senate guys' view is that is a tax increase."
"While you may get me to say technically you've done X, Y or Z," he adds, "that doesn't pass the laugh test."
Marcus then offers Norquist a hypothetical situation, asking what he would say if, for example, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney came out in favor of letting the Bush-era tax cuts lapse.
"I would denounce him as a tax increaser and a bad guy -- it would not technically violate the pledge," Norquist answers.
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