GOP and taxes: Mixed message

@CNNMoney November 4, 2011: 5:57 PM ET
A lot of work but not a lot of time left: Debt committee leaders Jeb Hensarling and Patty Murray and member Jon Kyl.

A lot of work but not a lot of time left: Debt committee leaders Jeb Hensarling and Patty Murray and member Jon Kyl.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Republicans on Capitol Hill gave conflicting messages to the debt committee this week.

Yes, we will accept increases in tax revenue as part of a debt reduction plan.

Um, no, we won't.

Yes: On Wednesday, 40 House Republicans -- along with 60 Democrats -- signed a letter urging the committee to "go big" by crafting a $4 trillion deficit reduction plan that includes spending cuts and tax revenue.

A day later, House Speaker John Boehner, who has publicly told the so-called super committee that tax increases should be "off the table," nevertheless said he appreciated the signers' efforts to deal with the debt problem.

And he seemed to dismiss Grover Norquist, calling him "a random person in America" -- even though Norquist created the anti-tax pledge signed by virtually every sitting Republican lawmaker, including Boehner.

No: In the same breath, Boehner reiterated that Republicans are "opposed to tax hikes because we believe that tax hikes will hurt our economy and put Americans out of work."

Also on Thursday, 33 Republican senators sent a letter to the super committee, asking that anything the panel proposes include "comprehensive tax reform that lowers rates and promotes economic growth, with no net tax increase."

So which is it? The House letter and some of Boehner's remarks seemed to open the door to a super committee deal that Democrats could sign on to. And the Senate letter seemed to shut that door.

But longtime observers of the Washington budget game aren't so sure the GOP letter signals that.

Rather, they say, it's more a statement of preference than an absolutist demand that revenue increases are out of the question.

The letter says "we ask" not "we won't vote for any deal unless," said Joe Minarik, a former chief economist of the House Budget Committee and the White House budget office.

Indeed, it's more like "they're saying, 'This is what we'd like but it's not necessarily the only thing we can accept,' " said Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. (Watch: Debt committee under pressure)

What's more, the letter's message isn't necessarily incompatible with a go-big strategy like the kind some of the signers -- notably Sens. Tom Coburn, Mike Crapo and Saxby Chambliss -- have publicly supported in the past.

That's because they believe pro-growth tax reform can generate an increase in tax revenue, as can the elimination of tax breaks such as lobbyist-won loopholes for special interests.

And that increased revenue can be used to pay for lower tax rates.

Because if anything is crystal clear about the GOP position on taxes these days, it's that raising tax rates is a no-can-do. To top of page

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