Some GOP lawmakers distance themselves from tax pledge

WASHINGTON -- At least two Republican congressmen say they don't remember signing it. One signed it, but has since disavowed it. A half dozen have bucked pressure from within their own party and never signed it.

And a few others say they support the Taxpayer Protection Pledge in principle but would sooner violate the pledge than turn their back on a deal to reduce federal spending.

For more than two decades, the pledge written by activist Grover Norquist has been essential job application paperwork for any conservative Republican seeking a seat in Congress.

But a small number of GOP House members are joining Senate colleagues in distancing themselves from the pledge, as Congress works on a compromise to reduce the deficit.

That distance has taken a number of forms, from amnesia to outright disavowal:

•Not constrained: Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., has informed Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform that he no longer wishes to be associated with the pledge, though his name still appears on the group's website. "When you look at something like ending the ethanol subsidy, if that's considered a tax increase, I can't be constrained by that," he told USA TODAY. "Things have to be on the table."

•Agree in principle, if not in practice? Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., stands behind the "spirit" of the pledge, but "does not believe that the pledge prevents him from supporting tax reform that includes tax increases in some instances or closing loopholes," said his chief of staff Fredrick Piccolo Jr. If raising some taxes to solve the debt crisis means angering Norquist, Piccolo said, "he'll anger Grover Norquist."

A spokesman for Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., said Wisconsinites are interested in revenues in general, not the specifics of the Norquist pledge. "That's why Congressman Duffy has voted to get rid of loopholes and deductions in an effort to make the corporate tax code fairer and flatter and more competitive," said his chief of staff, Brandon Moody. Does that mean Duffy could support a deal that ends tax breaks for some people? "He'll take each vote as they come and make an informed decision based on the specifics of the proposal or bill," Moody said.

•Don't remember: At a town hall meeting last month, a constituent challenged Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., about his signing of the pledge. "I did?" Terry responded. "The list I've seen doesn't have my name on it."

In an interview afterward, Terry said he may have signed the pledge as a candidate in 1998, but wouldn't do so today. "I am so anti-pledges," he said. "At some point, I have to be able to say, 'Look at my record.' And my record shows I have never voted for a tax increase."

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., also "doesn't sign pledges," said spokesman Tom Pfeifer. But after retrieving a signed copy of the pledge from Norquist's office, Pfeifer said: "Whether or not he remembered signing something 19 years ago. … after reading the pledge it's clear he has stuck to it."

Thirteen members of Congress — including six in the House — have never signed the pledge. One is Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.

With increasing amounts of Treasury debt being bought by China, the deficit is a national security and human rights issue so important that "everything has to be on the table," Wolf said — especially tax breaks favoring special interests. "Tax earmarks ought to be eliminated."

Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., also never signed the pledge, saying it "simply reinforces our existing, broken tax code—the same tax code that's laden with 60,000 pages of deductions, exemptions and exclusions designed to curry favor from special interests," he said in a statement. He supports abolishing the income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax.

Norquist's group says 236 congressmen have signed the pledge, agreeing to oppose tax increases for as long as they hold their current office. That's up from 173 congressmen just a year ago, before Republicans took control of the House.

If tax increases are to be part of a deal to decrease the deficit by the end of this year, 19 will have to find a way out of the pledge.

The pledge takes several forms depending on the office. In its simplest version, politicians oppose "any and all efforts to increase taxes."

But the pledge for members of Congress is more specific. Congressmen pledge to: "One, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal tax rate for individuals and businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates."

But despite questions about the definition of a tax increase, Norquist has little patience for any equivocation. "Everybody knows what the pledge means. It's very simple. If it raises taxes, it's a tax increase," he said.

Politicians trying to wiggle out of their promise don't have to answer to him, Norquist said. "The commitment is not to Americans for Tax Reform. It's to their constituents."

That's good enough for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who's been feuding with Norquist since leading a group of 34 GOP senators — including 31 pledge-signers — to eliminate ethanol subsidies in June.

"Most of us agree with Grover on most of the stuff," Coburn said. "But he's not the one who gets to determine what a tax increase is. We are, and the American people are.

"The more media he gets, the more false power he has, which is more intimidating to people," Coburn said.

If more House members are showing their independence from Norquist in going after tax "earmarks," that could bode well for future deficit reduction efforts, he said.

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