After the Senate voted 73 to 27 today for an amendment that would end ethanol tax credits, the ongoing war between Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., boiled over.
While the current dispute has been triggered by ethanol, it’s part of a much broader debate over whether tax increases should be part of a bipartisan debt-reduction deal. Norquist, consistent with the anti-tax hike pledge that his group pressures candidates for office into signing, has argued that tax increases should be off the table in debt-reduction talks.
Under the pledge, which has been signed by 41 Senators and 235 House members, the elimination of any credits or deductions would be considered a tax increase unless offset by comparable reductions in taxes elsewhere. Coburn has argued that eliminating tax credits should be part of the debt-reduction solution even if it means a net hike in taxes, and has used the ethanol vote as a way to make his point about waste in the tax code. Ethanol subsidies are universally derided by small government advocates, and Coburn has been a longtime crusader against special interest spending and earmarks.
Norquist’s ATR worked with Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, on a complementary amendment that would end the death tax and ethanol mandate, making it a net tax cut when coupled with Coburn's amendment to get rid of the tax credits. The vote on today’s amendment to end the tax credits isn’t a violation of the pledge, Norquist argued, because Republican leadership has made it clear that they wouldn’t allow the underlying bill to move forward unless there was a vote on the DeMint amendment.
“It's perfectly acceptable for a Senator to vote for Coburn and DeMint, because they were joined by leadership as votes,” Norquist said.
Coburn’s office argues that Norquist has suffered a major defeat on the ethanol vote because no vote on the DeMint amendment has actually been scheduled. When I asked Norquist about this contention, he shot back: “They need to talk to the Republican leadership, as I have. They might listen to the Republican leadership on the floor, as I did…The leader said this bill will not move forward, will not get cloture, without a vote on DeMint. If somebody doesn’t understand that, they should check with the leader.”
Asked about Norquist’s argument, Coburn spokesman John Hart delivered a blistering response:
Grover’s not well. He’s just now realizing Republicans put the Abramoff-Norquist era behind them years ago. Three-fourths of Republican pledge signers and groups like the Club for Growth, Koch Industries, Americans for Prosperity, the National Taxpayers Union, and more, all rebuked Grover’s embarrassing defense of the ethanol earmark and gave no credence to his phony cover vote. I can’t speak for Mitch McConnell but McConnell voted with us twice and has done nothing to force a vote on the DeMint amendment. In fact, he has apparently allowed Reid to file cloture on the bill. It might be time for Grover to audition for Dancing with the Stars.
McConnell, in remarks on the Senate floor earlier today, said, " We have a number of other important issues to be debated and hopefully scheduled for votes... Senator DeMint has an amendment on the death tax and the renewable fuel standards... I'll be talking to the Majority Leader and members to see how we can schedule the votes before moving to final passage."
Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Reid said that nothing would currently "preclude the Senate from considering (DeMint's) amendment..."
DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said he was "hopeful" there would be a vote on the amendment either tomorrow or next week.
“Everybody will have the opportunity to make clear, did they mean to vote on a tax increase, stand alone?" Norquist said. "Or, were they voting for the elimination of the tax credit as part of the effort to dismantle the entire ethanol regime? ATR encourages people to vote for both.”