For the past week, Republican lawmakers have faced an either/or scenario on the fiscal cliff: stick with Grover Norquist’s tax pledge and risk going over the cliff, or forgo the pledge in order to strike a deal with Democrats.
But on Tuesday, at least two conservative voices seemed to say they thought there might be a third option.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) hinted Tuesday morning that Republicans could both work out a deal with Democrats and uphold their pledge. The argument hinges on the fact that without a deal, Republicans would be partially responsible for the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. By striking a deal, they would uphold the pledge by at least avoiding an across-the-board tax hike.
“I don’t intend to violate any pledge,” Toomey said on CNN’s “Starting Point.” “My pledge is not to support higher taxes. What we’re faced with in just a few weeks is a massive tax increase. If I can help ensure that we don’t have that tax increase, then I believe I’ve fulfilled my pledge to fight for the lowest possible taxes.”
Toomey isn’t the only person to give voice to a potential middle road. The Wall Street Journal did too.
In a Tuesday opinion piece, the Wall Street Journal editorial board argued that Republicans did not have to throw Norquist under the bus in order to assent to new tax revenues in a potential debt deal. “President Obama’s re-election means that taxes for upper-income earners are going up one way or another,” the editorial stated.
The WSJ argued that Republicans can hold true to their principles — and loosely adhere to the pledge — by working out a deal that prevents everyone else’s taxes from going up as well. The goal would be to force Democrats’ hand on entitlement reform in the process.
“This is where Mr. Norquist can give some ground,” the piece argued. “If taxes are going up anyway because the Bush rates expire, and Republicans can stop them from going up as much as they otherwise would, then pledge-takers deserve some credit for that. Mr. Norquist says it violates his pledge to eliminate deductions without lowering rates, but at the current economic and political moment it is also a service if Republicans prevent tax rates from going up. Speaker John Boehner deserves some leeway to try to mitigate the damage by negotiating a larger tax reform.”
A less strict interoperation of Norquist’s pledge could be interpreted as allowing for this kind of dealmaking as a way of opposing efforts to raise marginal tax rates.
But the pledge also prohibits its signatories from increasing tax revenues unless matched with lower tax rates. And Toomey did not hedge on his belief that a debt deal should adhere to this principle.
“Now if we’re going to do something on the revenue side, then for gosh sakes let’s at least not damage the economy any more than we have to,” Toomey said Tuesday. “And so let’s do it by lowering marginal rates and generating revenue through reducing the value of deductions, write-offs and loopholes — the kinds of things that destroy economic activity.”
Nonetheless, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat saw Toomey’s comments as pitching an alternative interpretation of the pledge.
“I think people saying Pat Toomey is ‘standing by’ the Norquist pledge aren’t parsing his words closely enough,” Douthat tweeted.
“Toomey seems to be saying he’s fulfilled his pledge obligation if he votes for a bill w/lower taxes than if the Bush tax cuts *all* expire,” he added.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.