WASHINGTON -- With Republicans showing signs of bending on taxes for the richest Americans as the nation nears the so-called fiscal cliff, Democrats mounted an effort Wednesday to put a little more public pressure on the GOP and its anti-tax pledge.
The cliff is the combination of expiring Bush-era tax cuts and mandated budget cuts that start in January. President Barack Obama and Democrats propose extending all the tax cuts for income under $250,000, while letting rates revert to the Clinton-era 39.6 percent for the top 2 percent of earners.
Most Republicans have adamantly opposed any such tax hike, adhering to a "no new taxes" pledge they signed with anti-tax champion Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.
Cracks have been appearing in the GOP's commitment to Norquist lately; Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) suggested taxes ought to be part of the discussion, and that Norquist and his pledge aren't so important.
And now Democrats are mounting an online petition that aims to mobilize the public against Norquist.
Norquist’s iron grip on Republicans in Congress is so strong that they’re afraid to raise taxes on billionaires even one red cent," says an email set to go out Wednesday from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"But now some Republicans claim they're coming to their senses about Grover and his anti-tax pledge," the email says, referring to Chambliss and Graham, as well as Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, who Tuesday advised his party to take the Obama offer to shield 98 percent of the country from a tax increase.
The DCCC is aiming to reach 250,000 people. At the same time, the White House is pushing a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #My2K, asking people what it would mean if their taxes went up $2,200, which is the average a family of four currently saves under the Bush cuts.
For his part, Norquist is downplaying the apparent softening of support for his pledge, telling The Huffington Post that such words come from same cast of characters every so often, and amount to little.
"There's going to be a lot of pressure from the spending interests and from some of the military spending guys," Norquist said. "Then there are always the people who run to the cameras."
"We went through this for a year with the debt ceiling increase. Then it was eventually all spending cuts and no tax increases."
One of the proposals floated as a compromise involves ending some tax deductions for the wealthy, which would leave their 35 percent marginal tax rate unchanged, but effectively raise taxes anyway.
Norquist said that would violate his pledge, and added that Republicans who were talking about such deals -- on the grounds that they will get reforms to entitlement programs and the tax system in return -- are essentially living in a fantasy world.
"Quote unquote, the Republicans who are open to tax increases, every one of them has sugar plum dancing fairies in their head of fundamental entitlement reform, and some of them, fundamental tax reform," Norquist said, predicting that Obama would never go as far as the GOP would like in trimming programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
In a situation that Norquist compared to the standoffs before World War I, he predicted that the GOP won't budge and Obama would push the nation over the "cliff," which starts at the turn of the year.
"In World War I, everybody will tell you we didn't mean that to happen -- the guns of August -- everybody misjudged what everybody else was going to do, and how everybody would react," Norquist said, adding that the president is "way overplaying" the hand dealt to him by voters earlier this month.
"Obama has misread this election just as he misread the first one," Norquist said, adding that many supporters on the left are pushing Obama to stand firm, unlike in 2010 when he kept all the Bush cuts and 2011 when the debt ceiling deal included no taxes.
"I think there's a danger Obama pushes harder," Norquist said. "Remember the last two times we had these arguments he collapsed completely. [Now] he's back, mad."
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.)
Chambliss, a conservative Republican up for reelection in 2014, started the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2012/11/26/the-gops-read-my-lips-moment/" target="_hplink">media surge</a> of prominent GOP lawmakers breaking ranks with Norquist last week. He told a local news station on Nov. 21 that he thought the pledge itself was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/23/saxby-chambliss-grover-norquist_n_2177333.html" target="_hplink">outdated</a>. "I care too much about my country -- I care a lot more about it than I do about Grover Norquist," Chambliss said. "Norquist has no plan to pay this debt down. His plan says you continue to add to the debt, and I just have a fundamental disagreement about that and I'm willing to do the right thing and let the political consequences take care of themselves." As a member of the "Gang of Six" --lawmakers focused on a path towards deficit reduction -- Chambliss has proposed raising a significant amount of new revenues through tax reform.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.)
King championed Chambliss' take on the ATR no-tax-increases pledge when speaking about deficit reduction on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "I agree entirely with Saxby Chambliss," King <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2012/11/25/lindsey-graham-peter-king-break-with-grover-norquist/" target="_hplink">said</a>. "A pledge you signed 20 years ago, 18 years ago, is for that Congress. ... The world has changed, and the economic situation is different...For instance, if I were in Congress in 1941, I would have signed a declaration of war against Japan. I'm not going to attack Japan today. The world has changed, and the economic situation is different."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
The South Carolina senator took to the news shows on Sunday to push for a solution to the fiscal crisis, even if it requires that the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/12/lindsey-graham-grover-norquist-anti-tax-pledge_n_1590356.html" target="_hplink">GOP gives some ground on new revenues</a>. He told ABC's Jonathan Karl that he would be willing to break the pledge in order to ensure the fiscal solvency of the United States -- provided, of course, that Democrats would cede some serious structural reforms to entitlement programs. "When you're $16 trillion in debt, the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid becoming Greece, and Republicans -- Republicans should put revenue on the table," Graham <a href="http://www.newsmax.com/Headline/mccain-graham-norquist-chambliss/2012/11/25/id/465282#ixzz2DLTNhN8O" target="_hplink">said</a>. "I want to buy down debt and cut rates to create jobs, but I will violate the pledge, long story short, for the good of the country, only if Democrats will do entitlement reform." <em>Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a misspelling of Graham's first name.</em>
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)
Corker became the third GOP senator to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/26/bob-corker-grover-norquist-pledge_n_2190985.html" target="_hplink">publicly disavow the pledge</a> promulgated by Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform in the last week. Speaking to CBS' Charlie Rose on Monday, the Tennessee Republican said that he was bound to serve his constituents first and foremost. "I’m not obligated on the pledge," he said. "I made Tennesseans aware, I was just elected, the only thing I’m honoring is the oath I take when I serve, when I’m sworn in this January."
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.)
Although Cantor has not come out and explicitly stated that he would violate the pledge -- in the manner of Graham -- he has said that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/26/eric-cantor-grover-norquist-pledge_n_2191375.html" target="_hplink">he is not concerned</a> with the pledge and wants to do what is best for his constituents. "When I go to the constituents that have reelected me, it is not about that pledge," Cantor said on MSNBC on Monday. "It really is about trying to solve problems." As a part of a supposed grand bargain, Cantor says that Republicans are willing to put some new revenues on the table, provided that they are raised from closing loopholes rather than from increasing the marginal rates. Under Norquist's pledge, neither option would be permissible.
Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.)
Rigell broke with Norquist and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/16/grover-norquist-tom-coburn_n_1676841.html" target="_hplink">revoked his signing</a> of the pledge in May on the grounds that it restricts any meaningful attempt at tax reform. "Averting bankruptcy requires us to grasp the severity of our fiscal condition and summon the courage to speak boldly about the difficult steps needed to increase revenues and sharply decrease spending," he <a href="http://www.democraticwhip.gov/content/washington-post-gop-shifting-taxes-norquist-pledge-losing-support" target="_hplink">wrote</a> in a two-page letter explaining his reversal to his constituents. He wasn't advocating for tax hikes to further increase government spending, but any substantive overhaul of the tax code could only be undertaken if everything was on the table, he said. At the time, Norquist questioned the salience of Rigell's position, saying that the sort of tax increases he was looking for would be as unlikely as <a href="http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0512/76470_Page2.html#ixzz2DM2L4989" target="_hplink">catching a unicorn</a>. “[I've] been in touch with the Republican Party in [Rigell’s] district, and they aren’t excited about it. This is not going to be a continuing problem,” Norquist told Politico in May.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)
Coburn has <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/16/grover-norquist-tom-coburn_n_1676841.html" target="_hplink">publicly criticized</a> the idea of a no-new-taxes pledge before. In July, he authored <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/16/opinion/a-greater-american-pledge.html?_r=2&ref=todayspaper" target="_hplink">an editorial</a> for The New York Times in which he decried the hard-line approach taken by Norquist as counterproductive to substantive deficit reduction. "In a debt crisis, higher interest rates and the debasement of our currency would be additional tax hikes," Coburn wrote. "In that sense, no one is doing more to violate the spirit of the pledge than Mr. Norquist himself, who is asking Republicans to reject the very type of agreement that could prevent future tax increases." Coburn previously disagreed with Norquist's characterization of his bill to eliminate the ethanol tax credit as a "<a href="http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0611/56990.html" target="_hplink">tax increase</a>."
Senator-Elect Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)
When running for his Arizona seat, Flake claimed that he had not signed the pledge when <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/10/jeff-flake-promises-tax-pledge_n_1956509.html" target="_hplink">in fact he had</a>. But the Republican did publicly distance himself from Norquist, saying in October that "the only pledge I'd sign is a pledge to sign no more pledges." "I believe in limited government, economic freedom, individual responsibility," Flake said during a debate against his Democratic and Libertarian opponents. "I don't want higher taxes. But no more pledges."
Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.)
Ribble, a freshman lawmaker from Wisconsin, decided that <a href="http://www.postcrescent.com/article/20111116/APC0602/111160402/Editorial-Read-Rep-Reid-Ribble-s-lips-No-new-pledges" target="_hplink">he wouldn't be signing any more pledges</a>, including a renewal of Norquist's anti-tax measure. In order to achieve deficit reduction, he wants to <a href="http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0512/76470.html" target="_hplink">close corporate loopholes</a> and explore other options around tax reform. "Tax rates don't correlate much to what actual revenue is, but if we would remove some of the subsidies and tax giveaways, we would have the money to reduce rates and spur economic growth which would increase revenue," he told CNN.
Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.)
Andrews, one of two House Democrats to sign the anti-tax pledge, said that he thought the anti-tax promise only applied to the term in which he signed it rather than extending throughout his legislative career. "I honored that pledge -- <a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/house/192529-house-gop-lawmakers-want-out-of-tax-pledge" target="_hplink">I never renewed it</a>," Andrews told The Hill back in 2011. "I never considered it to be like my marriage vows...I'm married to Camille Andrews, not Grover Norquist. I promised her to be faithful until death do us part, and I mean it. I did not promise him to oppose tax increases until death do us part."
Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.)
Terry also believed that the anti-tax pledge only applied to the two-year term in which he signed it. He and Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) both indicated to The Hill in 2011 that they had signed the pledge <a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/house/192529-house-gop-lawmakers-want-out-of-tax-pledge" target="_hplink">20 years ago</a> but had not agreed to uphold the pledge while serving in the present Congress.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.)
Fortenberry told his constituents in August that he found Norquist's anti-tax pledge to be "<a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/house/192529-house-gop-lawmakers-want-out-of-tax-pledge" target="_hplink">too constraining</a>" and did not want to be associated with it. He first broke ranks in 2011 and then <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/jeff-fortenberry-one-house-republican-whos-dared-to-defy-grover-norquist/2012/05/17/gIQA5Q0wVU_blog.html" target="_hplink">renewed his position</a> again in May 2012 when speaking to The American Conservative. "Simply looking at the status quo and suggesting that the tax code is sacrosanct and can never change, and that decisions made in the ’80s and ’90s can never change, is absurd," he said. "The tax code is weighted toward the ultra-wealthy and ultra-wealthy corporations, and has created an offshore aristocracy of people who can afford to hire an army of accountants and lawyers." "We need a simpler, fairer tax code. Removing special-interest loopholes could potentially increase revenues and allow for lower rates," he added.
Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio)
LaTourette, who announced in July that he will retire at the end of the year, hasn't signed the pledge since 1994. He was under the impression, like several other GOP lawmakers, that the anti-tax promise had a limited applicability and had to be renewed. "My driver’s license expires," LaTourette <a href="http://thehill.com/homenews/house/192529-house-gop-lawmakers-want-out-of-tax-pledge" target="_hplink">told</a> The Hill. "The milk in my refrigerator expires. My gym membership expires, and I find the website to be a little deceptive." LaTourette and Sen. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) <a href="http://cooper.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=586&Itemid=73" target="_hplink">introduced</a> a version of the Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction plan in March. Although it engendered very little public support at the time -- and drew fire from Norquist -- LaTourette told HuffPost that many lawmakers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/02/steve-latourette-grover-norquist_n_1733712.html" target="_hplink">privately pledged to get behind the measure</a> after the November elections.
Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.)
DesJarlais <a href="http://www.tennessean.com/article/20121127/NEWS02/311260055/Sen.-Corker-backs-off-no-tax-hike-pledge?nclick_check=1" target="_hplink">walked back his commitment</a> when The Tennessean asked about his signature on the anti-tax pledge Monday. "The only pledge that matters is the one I made to my constituents to always represent their interests in Congress," the Tennessee congressman said in a statement. "I will judge any legislation put forth to avoid the fiscal cliff based solely upon the wishes and needs of the people of Tennessee’s Fourth Congressional District." In the past, DesJarlais has also appeared to waffle on conservative positions he has taken on both preventing abortion and supporting family values. HuffPost's Michael McAuliff <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/10/scott-desjarlais-abortion-pro-life_n_1953136.html" target="_hplink">reported</a> in October that he had an affair with one of his patients and appeared to push her to get an abortion on a recorded phone call.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)
Alexander first broke with the pledge last year, but he <a href="http://www.tennessean.com/article/20121127/NEWS02/311260055/Sen.-Corker-backs-off-no-tax-hike-pledge?nclick_check=1" target="_hplink">reaffirmed his sentiments</a> to The Tennessean yesterday. When speaking to Roll Call magazine last July, the senior GOP senator said that he wanted to get rid of some <a href="http://www.rollcall.com/issues/56_139/grover-norquist-ethanol-tax-206489-1.html" target="_hplink">unwarranted tax breaks</a> -- something Norquist's pledge would not allow. “My only pledge is to the United States flag and to the United States Constitution, and I’ve forsworn all others,” Alexander <a href="http://www.tennessean.com/article/20121127/NEWS02/311260055/Sen.-Corker-backs-off-no-tax-hike-pledge?nclick_check=1" target="_hplink">told</a> Roll Call at the time.