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A welcome departure from a rigid pledge

S.C.’s Graham, others, signal willingness for real reform

We have a confession to make: Like a growing number of people in Washington, we’ve been having some impure thoughts. No, not those kind. They’re about taxes.

Lindsey Graham has been having some, too. The Republican senator from South Carolina talked about them Sunday on ABC’s “The Week,” where he acknowledged that he would consider a cap on tax deductions as part of a path to reduce our country’s debt.

Doing so, however, would violate the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” a vow against new taxes that Graham signed long ago, along with just about every other Republican officeholder in Washington over the past 20 years. The pledge is the creation of Grover Norquist, who runs an organization euphemistically called Americans for Tax Reform and has become a cult figure in conservative circles. Norquist has vowed to say very bad and public things about anyone who might violate his pledge. That might seem like a middle school way of doing things, but it has effectively kept Republicans in line.

Until now, that is. Graham’s appearance on Sunday followed a similar parting from the pledge by Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Prominent Republican Rep. Peter King also has gone public with second thoughts about his vow, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told MSNBC that his constituents didn’t re-elect him because of the pledge.

All of which has Norquist rushing to the nearest cameras to both chastise pledge-breakers and proclaim all is well. “No Republican has voted for a tax increase,” he said Monday on CNN. “We’ve got some people discussing impure thoughts on national television.”

Besides being kind of creepy, the words have the sound of someone who sees things getting away from him. Grover supporters scoff at this and say Grover haters are hyping pledge defectors because it will lead to big tax increases. But that’s not what Graham and others are proposing. On ABC, Graham said he would consider capping deductions if Democrats offered social spending reform. That’s not caving to tax hikers; it’s carving out a reasonable place for negotiation.

That, unfortunately, is what Norquist would call “impure.” But his is the kind of righteous, militant posturing that’s turning off Americans, including moderate Democrats and Republicans who think that progress is a whole lot more important right now than purity.

Those also happen to be the Americans who helped re-elect Barack Obama, and Nov. 6 carries dual realities Republicans must face: The Bush tax cuts likely will expire for the wealthy, and Americans have an appetite for both tax and social spending reform. By shaping the negotiations instead of folding their arms and frowning, Republicans can establish themselves as reasonable, not an obstacle to anything they don’t wholly agree with. Graham, Cantor and Co. are perceptive enough to recognize this opportunity – and powerful enough to stare down Norquist.

The result is promising on two fronts: Republicans are offering a glimmer of willingness to partner in meaningful reform, and Norquist and his pledge might finally be pushed to the political margins, where they belong.

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