Antitax campaigner Grover Norquist advised a room of House Republicans on Thursday that a failure to extend the payroll-tax cut would not be tantamount to raising taxes, regardless of what President Obama and other Democrats say.
Norquist’s comments come as the Senate prepared to vote on Thursday night on different Democratic and Republican bills to prevent the tax cut from expiring at the end of the year.
His remarks also come a day after Obama asserted at a rally in Scranton, Pa., that expiration of the payroll-tax cut would be a blow to the economy. His message to Congress: “Don’t be a Grinch. Don’t vote to raise taxes on working Americans during the holiday.”
But Norquist differed. “For the president to run around and say not continuing a temporary tax cut is an increase is inaccurate,” he said in an interview after the closed-door meeting with the lawmakers.
Norquist said neither himself nor his group, Americans for Tax Reform, necessarily opposes extending the payroll tax cut--although he suggests any scenario that includes “another one-year extension of the tax holiday in return for a permanent tax increase on something else” would be a “mistake.”
The expected Senate votes on different Democratic and Republican bills to extend the payroll taxes into 2012 is seen as a first step toward clearing the way for a compromise.
So far, the two parties differ on how to pay for an extension. Senate Democrats propose cutting workers’ Social Security taxes by imposing a 3.25 percent surcharge on income greater than $1 million, something Republicans say is a nonstarter. Republicans in the Senate want to cover the nearly $120 billion cost of a one-year extension with such items as freezing civilian federal employee salaries and cutting the federal workforce.
House Republicans have yet to make an offer, but Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sounded an optimistic note on Thursday that a deal will be reached.
“I do believe there is enough common ground," Boehner said. "I don’t think there’s any question that the payroll tax relief, in fact, helps the economy,” by allowing working Americans to keep more of their wages.
But many members of his Republican Conference disagree that the payroll tax cut has actually stimulated the economy and want it to expire. Norquist promised that he would not consider that a tax increase.
Norquist pointed to how it was passed last year: “Had the president said this should be policy forever, and the Republicans said we’ll think about it, you could have come back to say you always wanted it to be permanent, the country wanted it to be permanent, it was supposed to be permanent--but that is exactly what wasn’t done."
The meeting of some Republicans on Thursday with Norquist was scheduled before the current debate in both the House and Senate on whether to take action to renew the tax break. But, given his group’s controversial “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” signed by nearly all of the GOP members of Congress not to support any tax increases, its timing proved notable.
In short, Norquist’s comments to the lawmakers appears to give a type of dispensation on any claim they have violated that pledge, should the payroll tax expire.
Norquist declined to discuss exactly what he told the gathering of about 32 lawmakers dubbed the House GOP “Theme Team,” but several confirmed he made similar comments to them regarding the payroll-tax cut.
“He says this was sold last year as a one-year thing and that he did not think that not extending it should be considered a tax hike,” said Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo.
Akin and others in attendance said that Norquist emphasized it’s not what he says that counts.
“It’s what passes the laugh test when you sit around with your own constituents, when you go to the local coffee shop, and you explain how this was sold as a one-year thing,” said Akin, who believes the cut should expire.