Chambliss latest US Republican to break with anti-tax lobbyist

Fri Nov 23, 2012 2:49pm EST

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By Kim Dixon

WASHINGTON, Nov 23 (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss this week became the latest Republican lawmaker to loosen his ties to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax lobbyist famous for getting elected officials to sign a "taxpayer protection pledge."

The rebellion, albeit a modest one, comes as Republicans prepare to negotiate with Democrats and President Barack Obama on a deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff - some $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts set to jolt the economy at the beginning of 2013.

"I care more about this country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," Chambliss told Georgia television station WMAZ on Thursday. "If we do it his way then we'll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that."

A vast majority of elected Republicans have signed the pledge Norquist created in 1986, which commits them to voting against tax increases, and it became a type of litmus test among U.S. conservatives.

But its influence, and that of Norquist's organization, Americans for Tax Reform, may be waning following Republican losses in this month's elections and acknowledgments from Republican leaders that revenue must be raised to pare deficits topping $1 trillion.

"Grover Norquist has no plan to pay this debt down. His plan says you continue to add to the debt. I just have a fundamental disagreement with him about that," Chambliss said.

Republican aides on Capitol Hill have been grumbling privately about the attention Norquist gets, worrying that it weakens their ability to negotiate across the aisle.

Representative Scott Rigell, a Republican who won re-election despite disavowing the pledge, expressed similar sentiments publicly in a Nov. 17 interview on CNN.

Rigell said he is a businessman and he would "go where the numbers lead me. And a careful analysis of our budget and trying to reconcile that with the Americans for Tax Reform Pledge led me to the clear decision that the pledge itself is an impediment to meaningful tax reform."

Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said such comments show that taking on Norquist is not as risky as it used to be.

"Taking on Grover Norquist at this point is not the kiss of death it was a year or five years ago," Ornstein said. "Especially when you have a president winning re-election after making raising taxes on the rich a centerpiece of his campaign."

DEBT, POLARIZATION

By signing the pledge, lawmakers agree to "oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business," and "oppose any net reduction" or elimination of deductions and credits, unless it is matched dollar for dollar with further tax rate cuts.

Chambliss is a member of the so-called Gang of Eight group of Senators, a bipartisan alliance working for deficit reduction, formed last year when the country was on the verge of default thanks to a partisan battle over raising the country's borrowing limit.

Among the other Republicans who have expressed misgivings about the pledge in recent months are Senator Lindsey Graham and Representative Steve LaTourette, who is leaving the House, citing the polarized climate in Washington.

The new House of Representatives, which starts work in January, has 16 Republicans who have not signed the pledge, up from six in the outgoing Congress. One new Republican senator, Jeff Flake, also has not signed.

Democrats believe they have the upper hand in talks, after Obama's win over Republican challenger Mitt Romney in a campaign in which Obama stressed the need for the wealthy to pay more in taxes.

Speaking on the sidelines of a Washington event last week, Norquist told Reuters: "People don't always take the pledge first when they run. A lot take it after they have been there for a while. The pledge isn't the only vehicle for stopping tax increases."

A spokesman for Norquist was not available for comment on Friday.

Chambliss, who is up for re-election in 2014, was asked in the interview whether Norquist will retaliate against him.

"In all likelihood yes," Chambliss said.

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