If Republicans win control of the White House and Congress in November, they could easily extend all of the Bush tax cuts at the end of 2012 or early next year. But if they don't hit the trifecta, they'll find themselves on the horns of a dilemma: Either strike a deal to keep some of the tax cuts in place, or wait for the Democrats introduce their own middle class tax cut when the rates lapse on December 31.
This complicates Norquist's strategy. If all the Bush tax cuts expire, then a quick vote in January to reinstate some of them will score as a straight tax cut -- not technically a violation of his pledge but certainly a blow to the anti-tax cause.
"I've encouraged my team to realize that we have lots of leverage on this. This is not a situation where you go to the table and you're desperate to get a deal," Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) told TPM. "The moment that Jan. 1 comes, there is kind of a hall pass granted to Republican legislators because now more modest changes than the Bush cuts are ones that are still tax breaks compared to the status quo. And so that also gives some room for them to honor their pledge, if you will, and work forward to a reasonable ground on this."
That's precisely the escape hatch that Norquist wants to get rid of.
"The point is there are going to be votes on continuing everything versus not continuing everything," he said. "It is going to be clear that there are competing visions: One without a tax increase and one with a tax increase. And you either voted to raise taxes, let them lapse, or not to raise taxes -- or replace a tax cut that disappeared, or not replace it."
"I think it would be very difficult for any politician to look people in the eye and say, 'you're one of the 31 million families not hit by the [Alternative Minimum Tax], but because it had gone away and it was going to hit 40 million and I made it only hit 30 million, that it wasn't a tax increase,'" Norquist added. "That doesn't pass the laugh test."
The issue came up last July when Norquist seemingly told the Washington Post editorial board that letting a tax cut lapse would not violate the pledge. At the time he quickly backtracked, and now he's slamming the door shut. His remarks put Republicans on notice that they'll be expected to fight, this Congress and next, for complete extensions of the Bush tax cuts. It escalates a bitter fight between the parties -- one in which Democrats remain determined to break the GOP's anti-tax absolutism and in which recent votes and statements suggest that the pressure is taking a toll on Republicans.
The Americans For Tax Reform chief dismissed reports suggesting that Republican lawmakers are backing away from their pledges and creating wiggle room to compromise with Democrats -- to avoid the deep economic costs of the tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to become law in 2013.
"There have been 17 articles in the last year and a half that somebody has written saying that Republicans secretly yearn to raise taxes, and it's just -- 17's a low number," Norquist said.
So far, Republicans aren't yielding, as Merkley concedes. But their toughest test is yet to come.