Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The 42 senators and 196 House members who have signed a no-tax-increase pledge received a stern warning last Wednesday from Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform (ATR): If you vote for Amendment 2548 to the Democratic-sponsored expansion of SCHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program), you will violate your solemn promise. However, Amendment 2548 is not the product of tax-and-spend liberals but of conservative lawmakers and policy experts.

Sen. Richard Burr, a first-term conservative Republican from North Carolina and principal sponsor of 2548, pulled it off the floor Thursday night as SCHIP expansion passed the Senate, 68 to 31. The conservative movement is split over Norquist's warning, with two right-wing think tanks at each other's throats. Sponsors of the Burr amendment are furious that they are being depicted as tax-increasers when they claim they are fighting a movement toward "socialized medicine" in America.

This disarray on the right is part of a broader conservative breakdown. SCHIP passage, with notable Republican support, means the Democrats -- 12 years after the failure of "Hillary care" -- have figured out how to market a government-financed plan. The quarrel over the Burr amendment reflects not only a failed Republican reaction to big government but also a weakening of GOP resolve to hold down taxes.

SCHIP, conceived to provide health insurance to poor children, in its new incarnation extends to adults with salaries 300 percent or more of the poverty level. Opposition in the House and Senate triggered denunciations of heartless Republicans with no compassion for poor and ailing "kids." In Thursday night's vote, 18 Republicans -- including nine up for re-election -- crossed party lines to join a solid Democratic phalanx.

The conservative alternative was individual employee health insurance, and a bill providing that was prepared for introduction by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Norquist informed DeMint that his bill, by reducing current employer deductions for health care, was scored as an $800 billion tax increase. Told by Norquist that this could be fixed by attaching a tax cut to the bill, DeMint then added a section repealing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). On July 25, Norquist wrote DeMint a congratulatory letter calling his bill "a model of what conservatives should be for when it comes to health care reform" and "does a lot of good without raising taxes."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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